Gen Z's happiness is most driven by a 'sense of purpose', according to new research - but data shows it declines as they reach adulthood

The number one thing that is driving Gen Z happiness has come as a surprise to some

A group of happy teenagers taking a selfie on the beach
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The happiness of the younger generations is in decline, and researchers want to find out why. With new data showing that Gen Z need a sense of purpose to feel happy, can this explain why their life satisfaction declines in adulthood?

Every parent wants to know how to raise happy kids, but as Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) grow up - with many of them now full-fledged adults - some parents may feel like they are no longer able to influence their child's happiness. And this isn't helped by new research discovering that the happiest generations are those that are older, while children's mental health becomes a growing concern (an NHS England survey found that one in five children and young people in England aged eight to 25 had a probable mental disorder in 2023).

But a recent poll appears to have found the secret to Gen Z happiness - it's mostly driven by one thing, and it could prove crucial in improving the cohort's life satisfaction. The survey of 2,000 Gen Zers from ages 12 to 26 years old was carried out by analytics company Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, and found that "The most influential driver of Gen Z's happiness is their sense of purpose at work or school."

However, while 73 per cent of Gen Zers consider themselves to be very happy or somewhat happy, their happiness appears to decline with age, experiencing a significant drop as they reach adulthood. While the data showed that 80 per cent of those aged 12 to 14 felt 'very happy' or 'somewhat happy', this dropped to 67 per cent for those aged 21 to 23.

This pattern matches the percentage of Gen Z who experience feelings of significance and purpose. While 85 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds agreed with the statement 'my life matters', 65 per cent of those aged 21 to 23 feel the same.

The researchers said, "No factor is more influential in Gen Z’s overall happiness than the extent to which their work or schoolwork feels purposeful. At least six in 10 Gen Zers who are happy also say they feel they do something interesting every day (60 per cent), are motivated to go to work or school (60 per cent) and that the things they do at work or school are important (64 per cent)."

Meanwhile, Gen Zers who are not happy are about half as likely to say they agree with each of these statements.

The four main influences on the happiness of Gen Z were found to be:

  1. Purpose and meaning
  2. Basic needs and security
  3. Negative emotions and social pressure
  4. Positive social connections

Dr Arthur Brooks, Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School, partnered with the Walton Family Foundation for this research on happiness. He explained, "Generation Z - the future of our country - has witnessed significant declines in happiness, and we must learn why. By partnering in this landmark study of adolescents and young adults, researchers, policymakers and parents will better understand what is happening and the changes we need to make."

On the news that Gen Z happiness is driven by purpose and meaning, Romy Drucker, Education Program Director at the Walton Family Foundation, added, "Gen Zers are telling us their happiness is directly linked to feeling a sense of purpose at school and work. Expanding meaningful and engaging learning experiences, including career pathways, can lead to more fulfilled and motivated young people."

In other news, we've asked the experts how to raise confident kids. If you're worried about your stressed teen, here are four ways you can guide them through and we've also rounded up 25 teen conversation starters to help you find out what's on their mind.

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.