Unhappy millennials are changing the rules of the game
By Jennifer M. Silva
Millennials — young adults born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — have quickly become the generation that everyone loves to hate. The popular media bemoan a generation that prioritizes self-exploration and fulfillment, feels entitled to a great job, and, as the cliche goes, was raised on sports teams where everyone got a trophy. Studies emphasize such claims, finding that young people today are likely to value leisure time more than previous generations, to consider themselves “above average,” and to show more ambition than altruism.
There is a veneer of truth to these accusations. Millennials are, in fact, delaying traditional adult responsibilities, spending more time living at home; changing jobs more frequently; and postponing, or even forgoing, getting married and having children. But after interviewing more than 100 millennials, I argue that these critiques fail to grasp the larger context in which personal happiness has become such a high-stakes game.
Millennials are growing up in a world where they learn early on not to expect loyalty from their jobs or permanence from their family relationships. When jobs are short-term, families are fragile, and trust in institutions is in short supply, focusing on one’s own happiness — and taking sole responsibility for achieving it — lends a sense of control and meaning to millennials’ coming-of-age journeys.
Let me share the example of Monica, a 31-year-old from the Northeast. Monica (not her real name) found her first job after high school in a toy factory, where she packed dolls in boxes before they were shipped out. When that factory closed down, she moved to an electronics factory, where she spent eight hours a day using tweezers to install tiny springs inside switches. She has since worked as a waitress, a truck driver, a field hand, a telemarketer, and a hospital aide. In her late 20s, after another seemingly long-term relationship fell apart, she dejectedly returned to living with her parents and helping her father in his logging business. “I was just like: ‘What am I doing with my life? It’s such a mess. It’s so unmanageable and I’m a mess and I’m not happy in any way,’ ” she says. “So I made a pact with myself that I was going to change something. I’m not going to slave away at a job that I hate. So I found my passion in life, and it happens to be in the arts.”
Monica is beginning college, taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans in hopes of a fulfilling career as an artist. She challenges herself to see the positive in everything that happens to her, believing happiness is within her control — even when her bike (and sole form of transportation) was stolen last spring. “I was like, ‘That’s all right. I needed to get rid of my mountain bike and get a road bike,’ ” she says. Though she is “just hanging on by a thread all the time financially” and has put relationships on hold, she has decided to take happiness into her own hands.
We can learn a lot from Monica. She and the other millennials I’ve interviewed are redefining the rules of success. To them, happiness is a willfulness — a realization that they have only themselves to rely on to create a life that feels meaningful and fulfilling. In Monica’s telling, her own attitude, rather than a broken social contract, is the greatest obstacle to happiness, and she is willing to take big risks to achieve it. Happiness means making a virtue out of disappointment, failure, and insecurity and deciding that living a good life comes from within, not from external markers like jobs or marriages or mortgages.
But if that’s the only lesson we take away, we are letting our institutions — and ourselves — off the hook. Millennials invest in their own happiness because they’ve learned that expecting happiness from others will only disappoint them in the end. What would happiness look like if it wasn’t about making a virtue out of necessity, of learning to depend on oneself because there is no one else to count on? What if we could anchor our lives not simply in the sheer willpower to feel happy as individuals, but in institutions that didn’t make us go it alone?
Jennifer M. Silva is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. This essay is adapted from her book,Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in the Age of Uncertainty.
The Greatest Generation looks back on lessons of a lifetime
By Dr. George E. Vaillant
At 19 years old, Godfrey Camille, along with 267 other Harvard College sophomores likely to lead “successful” lives, enrolled in a study that would follow him for the rest of his life. The year was 1939. Only gradually did the study’s staff discover that the allegedly “normal” Camille (a pseudonym) was an intractable and unhappy hypochondriac. On the 10th anniversary of joining the study, each man was given an A through E rating anticipating future personality stability. Camille was assigned an E, the lowest possible score.
As a young man Camille was a train wreck, but by the time he was an old man he had become a star. His achievement as a doctor, his enjoyment of work, love, and play; his health; the depth and breadth of his social supports; the quality of his relationship to his children — all made him one of the most successful octogenarians in the study. What made the difference? How did he develop such an abundant capacity for flourishing?
These are the kinds of questions that can only be answered by following participants over a lifetime. The project in which Camille participated — known as the Grant Study, because philanthropist William T. Grant originally funded it — is now the longest longitudinal study of biosocial human development ever undertaken. Continuous observation let us understand what happened to the men, in the way that following everything written about the Red Sox from the last miserable games of 2012 until the 2013 World Series finale helps us understand what happened to the team. Hindsight and prediction are misleading.
Before I go any further, Camille’s income at age 80 was in the lowest fifth of the subjects. Indeed, a major finding was that retirement income does not affect enjoyment of retirement. Another is that personality is not immutable; we develop all the years of our lives. Through reviews of Camille’s and his Harvard peers’ medical records, coupled with periodic interviews and biennial questionnaires exploring their careers, relationships, and mental well-being, the study’s goal was to identify the key factors to a joyful and healthy life. The most important finding was that Aristotle was right: “No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.”
I arrived at the Grant Study in 1966. I was 32 and still wet behind the ears. I became its director in 1972, a position I held until 2004. The single most personally rewarding facet of my involvement with the Grant Study has been the chance to interview these men over five decades. They grew and I grew. My conclusions in 2014 became different from those in 1972.
When I was 55 and Camille was almost 70, I asked him what he had learned from his children. “You know what I learned from my children?” he asked, tears in his eyes. “I learned love!” Many years later, having seized a serendipitous opportunity to interview his daughter, I believed him. I have interviewed many Grant Study children, but his daughter’s love for her father remains the most stunning that I have encountered. We don’t always make our luck. Sometimes it comes to us.
In 2009, I blurted out to a reporter: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Asked to prove my comment, I looked at 10 accomplishments from age 45 until 80 that embraced many different facets of success. Two had to do with occupational success, four with mental and physical health, and four with social supports and relationships. Parental social class, subject’s IQ, and ancestral longevity proved unimportant. Instead, by age 80 a loving childhood — as well as empathic capacity and warm relationships as a young adult — predicted later success in all 10 categories. Love is what matters.
Before age 30, Camille depended on narcissistic hypochondriasis to cope with life; after 50, he used empathic altruism and pragmatic stoicism.
The two pillars of well-being revealed by the Grant Study are the capacity to love others and a coping style that does not push love away.
Dr. George E. Vaillant is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. This essay is adapted from his bookTriumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.
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