Poll: Happiness for America's youth often means family, faith, belonging

Monday, August 20, 2007

NEW YORK -- So you're between the ages of 13 and 24. What makes you happy? A worried, weary parent might imagine the answer to sound something like this: Sex, drugs, a little rock 'n' roll. Maybe some cash, or at least the car keys.

Turns out the real answer is quite different. Spending time with family was the top answer to that open-ended question, with 20 percent mentioning it -- more than anything else. About three-quarters -- 73 percent -- said their relationship with their parents makes them happy.

Next was spending time with friends, followed by time with a significant other, according to an extensive survey -- more than 100 questions asked of 1,280 people ages 13-24 -- conducted by The Associated Press and MTV on the nature of happiness among America's young people.

"It's good news to hear young people being realistic about what really makes them happy," says psychologist Jean Twenge, author of "Generation Me" and a professor at San Diego State University. "Research has shown us that relationships are the single greatest source of happiness."

Also confirming existing research, Twenge says, is the finding that children of divorced parents are somewhat less likely to be happy. Among 13-17 year olds, 64 percent of those with parents still together said they wake up happy, compared to 47 percent of those with divorced parents.

Other results are more disconcerting. While most young people are happy overall with the way their lives are going, there are racial differences. While 72 percent of whites say they're happy with life in general, just 56 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics say that. And 66 percent of whites were happy at the moment the interview began, compared with 57 percent of minorities.

Young people in this survey also had a 10 percent higher stress rate than adults did in a 2006 AP-Ipsos poll. For ages 13 to 17, school is the greatest source of stress. For those in the 18-24 range, it's jobs and financial matters.

You might think money would be clearly tied to a general sense of happiness. But almost no one said "money" when asked what makes them happy, though people with the highest family incomes are generally happier with life. Just under half of young people think they'd be happier if they had more money, while the same percentage (49 percent) say they'd be just as happy.

Alcohol users are slightly less happy than those who don't drink. The differences are more remarkable among 13-17 year olds; just 40 percent of those who drank in the last seven days reported being happy with life, versus 68 percent of those who didn't. And 49 percent of illegal drug users reported being happy with life, compared with 66 percent of those who didn't use drugs.

And sex? Being sexually active actually leads to less happiness among 13 to 17 year olds, according to the survey. If you're 18 to 24, sex might lead to more happiness in the moment, but not in general.

From the body to the soul: Close to half say religion and spirituality are very important. And more than half say they believe there is a higher power that has an influence over things that make them happy. Beyond religion, simply belonging to an organized religious group makes people happier.

And parents, here's some more for you: Most young people in school say it makes them happy. In addition, marriage is a goal for young people, with 92 percent saying they either definitely or probably want to get married. Most also want to have children.

Finally, when asked to name their heroes, nearly half of respondents mentioned one or both of their parents. The winner, by a nose: Mom.

Also mentioned: God (more than 10 percent), teachers (nearly 5 percent); and members of the military, policemen and firefighters.

However you express, define or feel it, 65 percent of those surveyed say they're happy with the way things are going for them right now.

Will young people grow up to be happy adults? Overall they're optimistic: Sixty-two percent think they'll be happier in the future. But many anticipate a more difficult life than their parents had.

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