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The #1 Reason Why American Teens Are So Unhappy

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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America has never been so unhappy. In the 2019 World Happiness Report, America finished in 19th place, one drop lower than last year. It’s well below countries like Finland (#1), Iceland (#4), and Luxembourg (#14). America is one of the most established (and wealthiest) countries in the world, yet it has been undergoing a steady decline of subjective wellbeing—the scientific term for happiness—ever since the year 2000.

And teens, especially, are as depressed as ever. Approximately 1 in 20 American teens is currently experiencing a bout of major depression.

Report editor Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, proposed a theory as to why America is faring so badly.

In Chapter 7, he writes that the number-one cause of all this unhappiness is…drumroll, please…:


“This year,” he wrote, “my argument is that the U.S. is suffering an epidemic of addictions, and that these addictions are leaving a rising portion of American society unhappy and a rising number clinically depressed.”

Chasing Every Kind of Addiction

“The compulsive pursuit of…addictive behaviors is causing severe unhappiness,” writes Dr. Sachs.

Below, we’ve listed the addictions he’s talking about and why he is so concerned about them. We’ve also summarized some of the other findings of the report.

1. Substance abuse

Americans are one of the most drug-addicted people in the world. In 2017, America lost an average of 1700 years of life per 100,000 people due to drug abuse. (The report uses the term “Disability-Adjusted Life Years,” also known as DALYs, but we used “years of life” here to simplify things). Compare this to Europe, which lost only 340 years of life per every 100k people. Opioids are the worst epidemic in America, with 1220 DALYs being lost, but America holds the world record for its cocaine problem. It is number-one in the world for most years of life lost due to cocaine.

2. Behavioral addictions

Many Americans can’t stop compulsive behaviors. These include gambling, shopping (“retail therapy”), food, exercise, working, sex, and other addictive behaviors. Too much of a good thing is never good. It becomes an addiction when the user can’t stop participating in the activity despite knowing that it’s damaging their own life and the lives of those around them. Apparently, about half of Americans are addicted to one thing or another. For example, ten percent of Americans are workaholics. Another ten percent are food addicts.

3. Digital media

This gets its own category in the list because it is so pervasive. Teens are as addicted as ever to digital technology, according to Chapter 5 in the World Happiness Report, written by Jean Twenge (who also wrote the book iGen). Focusing on American adolescents, Twenge writes that they “are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time.”

Using data from the Monitoring the Future survey, she cites that 95% of U.S. adolescents had access to a smartphone by 2018, and the average teen spent more than 6 hours a day on social media, texting, and the internet. Time spent on electronic devices is replacing other more pleasurable activities, like face-to-face social interaction, exercise/sports, volunteering, and even sleeping—which are all associated with a greater measure of happiness. This is why adolescents are so unhappy, she proposes, and why there’s a rise in clinical depression, self-harming behaviors, and suicidal ideation.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Unhappiness

Addiction and unhappiness – clinical depression – go hand in hand. When a teen is unhappy, he or she may turn to substances or compulsive behaviors to escape the mental pain. Drugs, alcohol, shopping, social media: all of these addictions are ways to numb one’s emotions. But it’s a vicious cycle: the more you engage in the problem behavior, the worse you feel. You’re ashamed that you’re using drugs, or you’re gambling, so then you need to do it more and more to escape the guilt. But then you feel worse about yourself, hence you get even more depressed.

The cycle can also go the other way. A regular, happy-go-lucky high school teen with no mental health issues whatsoever can start using drugs (for example, prescription opioids) and eventually get addicted. This, in turn, can lead to them developing depression as they make increasingly bad choices in their downward spiral. They will stop all their once-pleasurable activities in efforts to obtain the drug. They can also fall into a bad crowd and engage in criminal behaviors. Chronically using drugs alters mood and the grey matter of the brain. So in this way, addiction leads directly to depression.

If Your Teen is Depressed or Addicted

If your teen is addicted to alcohol or drugs—like heroin, opioids, marijuana, cocaine, or any other drugs—you need to get them into an adolescent drug rehabilitation program immediately. Depending on the severity of their addiction, your teen may need a residential treatment center (RTC), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or intensive outpatient program (IOP). A substance abuse treatment center can help them detox safely and teach them how to achieve recovery from addiction. It will also treat the underlying issues of their addictive behavior and teach them coping skills to move forward in life.

If your teen has clinical depression, there are several things that can help. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) have been proven by research to reduce depression. To supplement therapy, a psychiatrist may also prescribe antidepressants. For severe depression, a teen mental health rehab center may be beneficial. (If your teen has depression and comorbid addiction, they need a dual-diagnosis treatment center.) These mental health rehab programs often integrate complementary therapies like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and more to provide a well-rounded therapeutic experience.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

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