Last year, the proportion of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old Americans reporting themselves to be “very happy” hit a new low. The social scientists W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone, seeking to explain these data, note a corresponding drop in the same cohort of marriage rates, frequency of attendance at religious services, and frequency of sexual intercourse—all factors that have been shown to correlate with happiness. They write:
Controlling for basic demographics and other social characteristics, married young adults are about 75-percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married. . . . As it turns out, the share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018. The decline has been similar for men and women . . .
Young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40-percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all. . . . What’s happening to religious attendance among young adults today? The share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018, even as the share who never attend has risen rapidly. Among young men, nonattendance is much more common than regular attendance, and the gap is steadily growing. Less involvement in the life of a local church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, we speculate, might translate into less happiness for young adults.
Upon further analysis, Wilcox and Stone conclude that what some observers have dubbed the “sex recession,” even if it cannot entirely be separated from the other two, is likely to be the most significant factor of all in declining happiness:
[W]hile marriage composition independently has only a modest effect on society-wide happiness, the decline in sexual frequency is itself related to postponed marriage: married people have sex more often. Finding a spouse can be hard and, crucially, one of the places young adults have historically found their spouses is church. Thus, while most of the decline in happiness is about declining sex, that’s not the end of the story. Declining sex is at least partly about family and religious changes that make it harder for people to achieve stable, coupled life at a young age. If we’d like more young adults to experience the joy of sex, we will have either to revive these institutions or to find new ways to kindle love in the rising generation.