Why Millennials Are Still Unhappy

You don't have to become the envy of your friends

Cal here :)

Hope you had a great weekend. I certainly did! I don’t know about you but I’m really looking forward to this summer.

So last month I was named a top 1000 writer on Medium which came with a $500 bonus plus another $50 for publishing a viral story. Guys, I know I’ve been writing for a little over a year now, but that’s absolutely fucking bonkers! None of that happens without you and I’m forever grateful.

Grateful is the name of the game ladies and gentlemen. I’ve found that the lack of gratitude is the source of unhappiness among young people. We all want the world — not because of some internal fire or purpose, but because we want to have what others already have.

I know it sounds yuppie, but gratitude it’s the key to happiness. Read on soldier.

Why Millennials Are Still Unhappy, and What You Can Do About It

“Why does it always rain on me? Is it because I lied when I was 17?”

-Travis, an angsty british band

A question to all millennials out there: where has our happiness gone?

I get it. We’re a generation crippled by debt, a social media first mover who can’t figure out FOMO, and we demand more from ourselves than the previous generation. For those reasons, I predict the self-help market will explode over the next five years as we seek salvation in books not called the Bible. God knows it’s helped me.

I’m reading a book called Happiness 101 by Psychologist Tim Bono. He teaches a class at Washington University called Positive Psychology — the most popular course offered at the university. Oddly enough, if you look up course catalogs at other schools (Harvard, Cornell, and UC Berkeley), a similar title rises among the most wait-listed. There appears to be pent-up demand for happiness.

Suppose you want to calculate the source of young people’s woes scientifically. In that case, professor Bono says you don’t have to look further than the happiness equation: Happiness= What We Have / What We Want

If this is true, then happiness depends not only on our current reality but on our future expectations of reality. We alter our happiness by either A.) increasing the numerator (What We Have) or B.) decreasing the denominator (What We Want). Most millennials prescribe to the former. We work our asses off for more money, cooler clothes, and exotic vacations so we can snap Instagram pictures and become the envy of our friends.

This strategy works to an extent. Of course, it does! But the fickle human mind prevents any lasting, meaningful happiness — which is why millennials are still stuck in a rut.

Think about it. When was the last time you achieved something meaningful? Let’s say a promotion at work. I’m sure you felt excited and celebrated the pay raise at first, but it wasn’t enough. A year later, you want a new title and another raise. Psychologists call this Hedonic Adaptation — I call it moving the goal post. Like a once-popular video game replaced by its sequel, we get something we want, we get used to it, and the thrill is lost.

The bane of the human condition.

Wisdom lies in the latter strategy, decreasing What We Want. Here’s the problem: What we want isn’t based on our internal needs. What we want depends on what others already have! We act according to how we stack up compared to our peers and rebel against our local deprivation. Take a study conducted by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Amos Tversky. He posed the following question to a group of college students:

Imagine you have just completed a graduate degree in communications and you are considering one-year jobs at two different companies.

(A) At company A, you’re offered a job paying $35,000. However, the other workers who have the same training and experiences as you are making $38,000.

(B) At company B, you’re offered a job paying $33,000. However, the other workers who have the same training and experiences as you are making $30,000.

The economist would say the candidate’s obvious choice is Magazine A because it offers a higher salary — who cares what your colleagues are making. But that’s not what happened. Two-thirds of the students surveyed said they would find position B more satisfying.

Here’s another way to phrase this: People would rather take less money so long as they make more relative to their peers. We are creatures whose well-being derives from the opinions or perceived opinions of others.

How do we diminish the value of “What We Want” without losing our edge? It is a matter of discipline, and it’s the reason mindfulness has become so vital. Much like Michael Phelps paying no attention to Chad Le Clos at the 2016 Olympics, studies show that happy people are motivated by interval values and largely unaffected by other's opinions or if someone is outperforming them. For unhappy people, the opposite is true. They are sensitive to how others are doing and only feel good about themselves so long as they are on par or better than their peers.

These conditions responsible for your unhappiness are not final. With mindfulness, you can fill your mind with positive thoughts, decrease the “What I Want” denominator, and increase happiness. Here’s what’s worked for me. Fair warning, it’s not a detailed 5 step process or a top 10 things list. No, it’s only this: 

1.) Gratitude: Think about things you have and are thankful for in your life— write down the top 3 in a journal. Use the Calm app and their daily gratitude meditations. Read Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Gain a new perspective and read a biography about a historical figure who went through hell and back—Winston Churchill felt alone even during his most formidable years. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Go home for your sister’s birthday. Write a thank-you note to someone at the office.

Look, I know this article will never get published because my advice isn’t surprising enough, but find 5 minutes a day and practice gratitude. Come to the realization that you are enough and that you always were—happiness will surely follow.

Teddy Roosevelt once said that “comparison is the end of joy.” Unfortunately for all of us, we live in a comparison economy. Millennials don’t have to subscribe to that BS. As I’m sure Teddy Roosevelt and Michael Phelps would agree, we become where we choose to place our attention.

Gratitude is the key.