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Youth Happiness: What makes 12-24-year-olds happy? [Change)Waves / Social Technologies]

by Andy Hines and Hope Katz Gibbs
Illustration by Jason Forrest
Change)Waves newsletter
Social Technologies
Winter 2008

The question intrigued us: What makes 12- to 24-year olds happy today and going forward into the future? We had some basic ideas—we figured that friends and technology would be important to this group. But how did they feel about religion, their parents, fame, and money? We were eager to find out.

To set the stage, our team at Social Technologies read everything we could find about what scientists and psychologists know about happiness. Merging this with our understanding of youth trends and behaviors allowed us to create about a dozen hypotheses about youth happiness.

Then, along with a team from MTV, we sat down with about five-dozen young people at Starbucks coffee shops in Atlanta, Phoenix, and Philadelphia, and began to explore our hypotheses in these informal focus groups.

Soon after, MTV enlisted the Associated Press to add a quantitative component to our qualitative findings. Their researchers polled 1,280 more youths in the 12-to-24-age range, and in late August 2007, published a series of press releases based on this data.

“What we loved about the study is that we were taking a snapshot in time,” says Matt Catapano, senior director of programming at MTV. “If you look at young people overall, you see that they are incredibly optimistic about who they are, where they are going, and what their future holds. That’s a constant to being young. They will always be impulsive, indestructible, impatient, and want to have fun.”

MTV wanted to conduct the happiness study, Catapano explains, because “we want to be youth experts in everything we do, and this study gave us the opportunity to understand, in a comprehensive way, who this generation is and what they think about themselves, their friends, their bodies, religion, politics, and their community.”

The findings have proven significant to MTV’s directors.

“We have shared the report with every department at MTV, and also bring it out when we spend time with our salespeople and advertising partners,” Catapano adds. “It now is helping our advertisers refine their campaigns, and the report is even influencing the shows we decide to put on MTV.”

The findings

At the outset we found that, like most people, today’s youth pursue happiness through a combination of three strategies: the pleasure of the moment, relationships with family and friends, and the long-term search for meaning and purpose.

But when we probed more deeply we discovered that, more than any generation before them, today’s young people recognize happiness is something that can and should be worked toward. In short, we found they have a very practical approach to happiness.

They pursue this practical approach in the context of what they see as an uncertain and rapidly changing world. They realize they can’t go it alone, and are highly reliant on friends and, perhaps more than is often recognized, on family and on spirituality or faith.

Thus, the tools youth use to pursue happiness could be summed up as Friends, Family, and Faith.

Consider faith. For today’s youth, it is not about ardent conversion to a religious cause. Instead, they see faith as useful for making sense of the world, and embrace it for that reason. Same with family: this is not about a wholesale return to traditional family values; it is a practical recognition that family provides security and direction that help along the road to happiness.

This “practicality” manifests in many other ways, too. For instance, adults may ask why today’s youth aren’t getting more involved in the big issues of the day, and view it as apathy or indifference. But digging beneath the surface, we see youth picking their fights carefully. They do want to make a difference, our research shows. But if they don’t see a way, they don’t waste their time getting involved. It’s less idealistic, perhaps, but more practical for sure.

Pragmatism reigns

We see it with their friends. Youths want to express themselves, and they often do it using technological means such as MySpace or virtual worlds. But they don’t get too far ahead of the crowd. They peek back over their shoulders and make sure their peer group is still with them, and if not, they’ll go back to them.

We see it with their parents. Initially, we postulated that youth might be looking to shoot down helicopter parents who hover over their every move like Secret Service agents. To our surprise, while they do find this annoying, it is only mildly so and largely tolerable. In fact, they told us they appreciate the concern and believe parents are looking out for their best interest.

We see it with fame. Do youth want to be famous? Absolutely, the youths we interviewed but they recognize the odds are not in their favor. Celebrity life is appealing, but they are content to fall back on a more “normal” life if fame doesn’t work out.

We see it with technology. Technology is a crucial tool for youth happiness. The key word here is “tool”: a means, not an end. Moreover, because they are completely comfortable with it—it is a native language for them, not a second language like for the rest of us—they are comfortable building relationships via technology. Perhaps a quarter of youth makes little distinction between F2F and virtual relationships, and that percentage is likely to grow. But this doesn’t mean human contact is not important—au contraire.

Technology is not replacing “physical” friends; it merely opens up a wider range of social options. Sure, a small percentage of kids overdo it, using the online world to escape from reality, but most see it as simply part of their daily routine.

And we see it with religion. We see youth increasingly seeking happiness via spirituality and faith. Our research on the future of values suggested this would be true for society at large, but we were somewhat surprised to see it showing up strongly among youth. However, we are not forecasting a wholesale return to traditional religion—rather, youth are taking a more pragmatic, cut-and-paste approach that uses the approaches that work and ignores those that do not. While youth are placing greater emphasis on spirituality, they are willing to engage many different ways and approaches.

Happiness forecasts

Our research and analysis yielded 13 forecasts about the future of youth happiness. Here we present six of them, with supporting data from the AP survey. [To read all the forecasts browse to www.socialtechnologies.com/mtv.aspx.]

Forecast—BFF. Friends will continue to be the most important relationships contributing to youth happiness. 80% of the youth polled say having lots of close friends is very or somewhat important; 23% say that when they go out with friends, they stop feeling unhappy.

Forecast—Parents. Despite minor annoyances, like being embarrassed by helicopter parents, youth will continue to depend on parents as vital sources of security and happiness. Nearly half the respondents mentioned at least one parent as a hero.

Forecast—Almost Famous. Youth, especially younger ones, fantasize about fame, but are savvy enough to know it is personally unlikely. “I want to be famous or a skater or a basketball player, but I don’t think it will happen,” says Nik O., 12, of Phoenix. Zachary G., 13, of Philadelphia says: “In the future, I want more peace and just a better life… a good job, and to take care of the kids.”

Forecast—Tech Me. Technology will be important for staying in touch and for the pleasure of the moment. 37% polled say they play videogames to stop unhappiness. 61% say technology helps them make new friends.

Forecast—Virtual & F2F. Youth will continue to make little distinction between F2F and virtual friendships. Of those polled 33% say they have friends online they’ve never met in person; 62% have used social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook; 53% have created their own profiles on such sites.

Forecast—Religion a la Carte. Youth will increasingly seek happiness via spirituality and faith. Those for whom faith plays a bigger role also tend to wake up happy—70% of these say it is the most important thing in their lives. “I’m not religious, but having spiritual life is important,” says Steven B., 21, of Atlanta. “There needs to be a purpose for life. If I didn’t have it, I don’t know where I’d be.”

The bottom line

Our months of research culminated in the essential finding that youths are taking a more practical, proactive approach to happiness than previous generations. On the surface they may come across as overly concerned with cool—or perhaps as cynical—but family, friends, and faith are hardly the stuff of rebels. Yet they also want to make a difference. And I wouldn’t bet against them.

Want to learn more? View the research findings on our website: www.socialtechnologies.com/mtv.aspx. To read more analysis of the findings, log onto our blog, http://changewaves.socialtechnologies.com, and click on The Future of Happiness.

About our team
Andy Hines is a leading organizational, academic, and consulting futurist. In 2006 he joined Social Technologies to manage the firm’s custom projects and consulting practice.

Several Social Technologies futurists and analysts including Traci Stafford Croft, Chris Carbone, Terry Grim, Jennifer Jang, Jason Forrest, Kristin Nauth, and Don Abraham conducted research for the MTV Happiness study.


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.