I recall imagining, back in 2020, that when COVID-19 was finally in the rearview mirror, we would witness a global party of epic proportions. If the “Roaring Twenties” were partly a reaction to the ebbing of the Spanish flu, perhaps the 2020s would feature a similar eruption of animal spirits and devil-may-care antics (albeit, alas, without the flapper dresses and headbands).
But as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has observed in a series of interviews, not only are we not kicking up our heels, we are immersed in various forms of psychological misery. Pick a survey. In 2022, Pew Research found that 41% of adults had experienced high levels of mental distress since the onset of the pandemic. The New York Times reports that suicide rates for those aged 10 to 19 increased by 40% between 2001 and 2019, and the hospitalization rate for self-harm rose by 88%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that nearly 3 in 5 teenage girls experienced extreme sadness in 2021, double the rate for boys, and 1 in 3 considered suicide.
Some of these findings reflect the added stress of dealing with the pandemic, but longer-term studies have shown similar results. The General Social Survey, for example, a large-scale study that has tracked American attitudes and feelings for 80 years, has noted a decline in well-being among both adults and adolescents starting around 2012. The drop in happiness is particularly marked among teenagers.
And, as Angus Deaton and Anne Case were the first to flag, the rate of deaths of despair (from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol-related liver disease) rose so much in the past several decades — before COVID — that overall life expectancy has dropped for the first time since the early 20th century.
The kids are not all right, and neither are adults. Confronted with data about unhappiness, many are tempted to mount their own hobbyhorses. Some cite political polarization. Others blame Big Pharma and its greedy peddling of opioids. Others cite climate change or inequality or racism or wokeness or insert-your-grievance-here.
Among those with no obvious ax to grind, like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” other possibilities have been floated. Well-intentioned but misguided parenting practices have created ultra-fragile adolescents, they argue, unable to cope with life’s challenges, while the explosion of social media has added an often dangerous dose of bullying and exclusion to the lives of teenagers. Smartphones and the internet have taken their lumps in the popular press, which line of criticism seems plausible if incomplete.
The data show, as Case and Deaton stress, that the population most prone to deaths of despair is non-college-educated whites. They are not the group that springs to mind when cataloging the baleful effects of Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat. But compared to other population groups, the trend lines for many of their measures of well-being are dramatically worse. Case and Deaton show that rates of mortality from all causes for other groups have declined. But among white non-Hispanics with only a high school degree, the death rate shot up. Prominent among the causes of death were drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning (including cirrhosis of the liver) and suicide.
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A new study, “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, adds an additional set of intriguing data. Economists examined the effect of religious affiliation on deaths of despair. Looking at data from the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, the economists found that there was a “strong negative relationship across states between religiosity and mortality due to deaths of despair.”
The researchers found that while religiosity declined across the board for all Americans in the decades they studied, the decline for white, non-college-educated Americans was far steeper. The authors note that the decline in religious participation, not belief, appears to be key, since surveys of spirituality, prayer and belief in God did not change appreciably during this period.
It’s unwise to draw large conclusions from just one study, but this data tracks with my own intuition that much of what ails our society arises from our poverty of human connections. The origin of all social connections is the family. Single adults are less likely than married ones to belong to all other groups including churches and other civic institutions. This is not to say that all single people are lonely or unfulfilled, but many single people say they’d rather not be. Marriage is the original bond that extends outward, and marriage is weakest among the non-college educated. It is now more common for a woman with only a high school diploma to have a child out of wedlock than as part of a married couple. Cohabiting couples break up far more frequently than married couples (unsurprisingly), and also divorce at much higher rates. Divorced people are three times more likely than married people to die by suicide.
In Genesis 2:18, God says “It is not good for man to be alone.” We haven’t yet absorbed that lesson sufficiently.
Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.