This month, Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation released a report examining happiness among Generation Z (12- to 26-year-olds), highlighting key drivers of Gen Z’s happiness. The survey revealed that while 73% of Gen Z-ers consider themselves happy (somewhat or very), the percentage declines substantially as they reach adulthood. The report identified the strongest predictors of happiness to be: a sense of purpose in school and work, positive social connections, and having enough time to sleep and relax. We asked Stephanie Marken, the senior partner of Gallup's education division, to explain the findings and their implications. 

LearningWell: The research reveals that the most influential driver of Gen Z’s happiness is their sense of purpose at school and work. However, just 48% of Gen Z-ers enrolled in middle or high school feel motivated to go to school, and only 52% feel they do something interesting every day. What does that say about curriculum and school-based experiences? 

Stephanie Marken: We know from our research at Gallup, that many students are less engaged in their schoolwork as they progress through schooling. We anticipate much of this is that students are unfortunately not specializing in topics that excite them as they progress through their educational experiences. We need more relevant, applied experiences in the K12 student experience to further engage and excite students about what they’re learning and how it will prepare them for the real world. 

LW: The report also shows a relationship between love and support and happiness, which perhaps isn’t surprising. Combined with the finding on a sense of purpose, do you see a reflection of previous Gallup work in the wellbeing area, specifically the Alumni Survey and the Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work study at Bates College. It seems that a sense of purpose and supportive relationships are key drivers of wellbeing across groups.  

SM: Supportive relationships are difference makers. In our prior, related research we find students who have a mentor and feel cared about as a person are more likely to be engaged in their work upon postsecondary completion and more likely to thrive in their wellbeing. We all need support, but given staggering mental health needs among Gen Z members nationally, we need that more than ever. This will only become increasingly important as this current generation continues to struggle with mounting mental health needs. 

LW: The report shows that Gen Z’s sense of love and support declines as they age. It seems like there is a turning point around 18-21, when typically young people would be leaving the house they grew up in, considered to be adults. Is this a pattern that is typical during this age range or is there something specific about Gen Z in that they are experiencing a decline in feelings of support and connection as they get older, more so than previous generations?

SM: We know that launching into the “real world”, whether that be from high school into the workforce, or high school into college, is a very stressful and complicated experience for many students. We should always expect students to report emotional stress, anxiety and worry during this difficult time. However, we also need to make sure they have a net to catch them when they struggle—mentors, and people in their postsecondary pathway and workplace—can be that net. This also reminds us that we need to prepare Gen Z members with resilience building activities and experiences early on in their development so that they can bounce back when they experience these setbacks and challenging times (because they will inevitably come). 

LW: The report also finds that feelings of significance and purpose decline as Gen Z gets older. Survey items like “My life matters” and “My life has direction” go from 69% and 85% for 12-14 year olds to 55% and 65% for 24-26 year olds, respectively. Is that replicating a pattern that you’ve seen in previous years or in previous generations? Do you have any hypotheses about why that may be happening?

SM: Unfortunately, we don’t have historic data on these important questions so we cannot compare generation to generation on these particular items, but we do know that this generation craves purpose in their workplace in a way that we do not find for prior generations. In their workplace, Gen Z workers, as an example, are seeing opportunities at work to learn and grow and looking for opportunities to work at organizations that make a difference. This crave for purpose, impact and significance shows up in these important data, as well as other research we’ve conducted. 

LW: Many young people in Gen Z report that they don’t get enough sleep and don’t have enough time to relax during the week, which are stronger predictors of happiness than physical or financial safety. Are there policies that workplaces or schools could implement to allow for their employees and students to have more time to unwind during the week, which would potentially have great impact on their happiness, thriving and wellbeing? 

SM: We know that technology, and our relationship with technology, is having an impact here. We see a lot of students struggling to manage their relationship with technology—not necessarily social media itself, but sometimes with social media—and that technology can make sleep, restful sleep, and positive sleep habits challenging. We need to teach young people—and older people too—these tools, so that they can detach and reset as we all need to do in order to sleep restfully. 

LW: There is a substantial piece of the report dedicated to social media, and related to that, comparison with others. The survey found that social comparisons have a clear negative relationship with happiness. 40% of happy Gen Z-ers say they often or always compare themselves to others, compared to 55% of those who are not happy. And 12–15-year-olds who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media were two times as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those two findings are clearly related. Could you speak to those findings? SM: It’s a great question. The comparison with others is a really critical and concerning finding—we know that social media is a tool that can allow for that comparison which is problematic. Many people who are tuning to social media are comparing their every day to someone else’s best day and that can cause a lot of self-hatred and sadness for many who feel like they are insufficient.