Baby boomers and millennials are becoming unhappier these days, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. A declining marriage rate, rising income inequality, increasing mental health problems, and the effects of technology have been blamed for this problem. I want to add another piece to this pie; unmet expectations. First, a few pertinent statistics.
A recent study by Cigna found that Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) and Millennials (adults ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations. UCLA’s 2015 Freshman Survey, which includes responses from 150,000 full-time students at more than 200 colleges, found that 41 percent of students said they felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do,” and logged the highest levels of unhappiness ever recorded among women, who are the majority of college students. A study of 2 million people from 80 nations found that most people are unhappy in middle age. In the US this peaks around 40 for women and age 50 for men. All of this begs the question, ‘why?’
Let’s begin with young adults. We’ve conditioned them to plod through an already planned path: get straight A’s, build an amazing resume for your college transcript, attend a top university, go to a leading grad school, win a cool internship, and then procure a high paying job and live (un)happily ever after. So, for their whole life they’ve had the next step already mapped out for them. This took away some of the anxiety about figuring things out on their own and it felt like a safer path. When these adults arrive in their 20’s, they have to create their own map, and they don’t have a clue how to begin. High school students today also have higher expectations for their career titles and achievements. But when those expectations run into a different reality, it creates frustration and disappointment, and subsequently, unhappiness.
In one of my recent podcasts I described the stress and pressure felt by many young adults today because of a belief that they should have their whole life figured out by the age of 18, and it should follow that prescribed path mentioned above. What kids are NOT hearing growing up is talk about their personal calling, their destiny, the reason they are on this planet. What sets apart eminent people who play at a high level is not the standard garbage reiterated to kids: good grades, intelligence, test scores, or where you went to college. Allan Rothenberg’s study of 400 eminent people found that only high levels of motivation were present in all of them. Having autonomy in what you do allows kids to develop high level of intrinsic motivation, full engagement, and the sense of meaning from following their destiny. Start asking your kids why they are doing what they do, encourage them to follow their intuition and passions. Affirm them whenever they take risks and get out of their comfort zone in pursuit of their interests. That should breed more happiness and fulfillment.
Now let’s talk about boomers. Beyond popular factors like marriage and divorce rates, the economy, the stress from raising children, and technology, a less talked about cause of adult unhappiness is unfulfilled expectations. I have found that many adults hit the proverbial mid-life crisis wall in their 40’s and 50’s, when they feel like all of their striving and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work has resulted in what? A lot of toys but little real fulfillment. They treat their emptiness with thrills, i.e. partying, drugs, gambling, porn, affairs, a new house or car. This does pull them out of their funk for a short while. But with every thrill there is a ‘hangover’, feeling more discouraged and emptier when they find themselves right back in their misery. It’s easy to get stuck in this thrill-hangover cycle.
Many physicians I know have become disillusioned with practicing medicine because the vision of the small-town doctor who is universally loved and revered (see Burt Lancaster in the movie Field of Dreams) has gone the way of Marcus Welby. Since I graduated medical school in 1981, Doctors have had to endure HMO’s and rising malpractice suits and insurance. Like their millennial counterparts, reality has not met their vision, and frustration and disappointment dominate their thinking. And it’s not just physicians who haven’t been able to create the career path they envisioned.
It’s never too late to discover your purpose and calling. Open your mind, tune into your heart, and follow your intuition in order to figure out what’s truly right for you, cultural conditioning and judgments be damned. Have the courage, young adults and boomers, to get out of your comfort zone, to break the mold, and create your own unique path you’re being called to follow.