It's a common refrain among many parents: I just want my kids to be happy. But happiness, of course, is tricky to measure — and it looks different for every child and every family. Still, there are certain benchmarks for measuring the overall wellbeing of children that offer invaluable insight into how our nation and world are — or aren't — offering future generations the best lives and prospects possible as they move into adulthood. Overall, and with plenty of exceptions, it's going pretty well. So, understanding why kids are happier now than they were 20 years ago is essential to keeping up the positive trends and remedying the troubling ones.
Some of the very best news to emerge from research into this subject is that the United States has made impressive progress in improving young people's safety, health, and education in recent decades. According to Duke University's 2014 National Child Youth Well-Being Index report, the number of young people aged 9 to 17 who were the victims of violent crime had dropped a dramatic 59 percent between 1994 (121 victims of every 1,000 youths) and 2013 (49 for every 1,000 youths). The teen birth rate fell, too: In 1994, 37 of every 1,000 15- to 17-year-old girls gave birth; in 2013, 12 of every 1,000 did.
And in that timeframe, both high school graduation rates and preschool rates rose — an encouraging trend for the education of kids in the United States.
Still, there are downsides for kids to growing up today as opposed to decades past. One is that young people worldwide are less fit than they have been in the past. In 2013, researchers from the University of Australia used running speed of kids from 28 countries to measure overall aerobic fitness of 9- to 17-year-olds, according to NPR. The results on that front were discouraging: It now takes kids a full 90 seconds longer to run a mile than it did 30 years ago. And since 1975, there's been a 5 percent decline in their aerobic fitness. Why? Kids today are both heavier and less physically active than those who came before them.
It's common knowledge that children's steadily waning proclivity to get and out play has to do with their growing connection to technology and social media. A study from St. Andrews University found that 11- to 15-year-olds were less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like drinking alcohol and smoking either cigarettes or weed than kids in that age range were about 10 years before. That's great, but one of the theories as to why is pretty discouraging. The Daily Mail's Steve Doughty summed it up in one sad, sad sentence describing the so-called "Facebook effect":
Teenagers who would be out with friends now play with gadgets at home.
Of course, each child's happiness is determined largely by his or own personal circumstances. And parents and other caregivers play a huge role in cultivating that happiness. According to Time, steps for building a foundation for happiness in kids include teaching them to be optimistic, showing them how to exhibit self-discipline, and simply letting them play more.
Doing that work might make for a happier generation of adults some day soon, too.