It was the morning after Thanksgiving, and we were driving to the Snowman Lot on Lady’s Island to pick out our Christmas tree.

Our daughter would be leaving that afternoon – thanks, Carolina-Clemson game, for cutting so many Thanksgivings short – so this was our only chance to do it as a family. We also knew that if we waited ‘til the following weekend, the tree selection would be slim to none. The Snowman’s not long for this world anymore.

“The holidays start earlier every year, and it makes me crazy,” I snapped, voicing my annual cranky refrain. “I’m still in Thanksgiving mode. Still enjoying my pumpkins and gourds! Why is everybody in such a rush to start Christmas?”

From the back seat, our daughter replied, “I think it’s because everybody’s so miserable.”


Her words fell hard on my heart. Here was my 22-year-old college senior, my fresh-faced baby girl, sounding ridiculously world-weary and jaded. I chalked it up to timing. She was heading into that crunch time between Thanksgiving and Christmas that every college student dreads.

I asked her about it later.

“Were you serious, earlier, about everybody being miserable, or were YOU just feeling miserable thinking of everything you have to do between now and Christmas? Term papers and exams and all that?”

“Probably a little of both,” she said. Upon further interrogation, I Iearned that she and her GenZ cohort tend to view the world through lenses that aren’t exactly rose-colored.

“I mean, we were born around 9/11, and things just went downhill from there,” she told me, citing school shootings, climate change, intense political polarization, economic insecurity, and multiple military conflicts as just a few of the components that might be contributing to, if not exactly mass misery, at least a collective sense of anxiety.

She had a decent point.

But could that really be it? The reason people are starting Christmas so much earlier? Are we just sadder now than we used to be? More desperate for sparkle and light, spiritual awe and spiked eggnog?

I got curious and started Googling for an answer. While there were lots of articles written about how unhappy Americans were during the Covid years, it seems that was just temporary set-back. (Sheesh. Didn’t feel temporary at the time, did it?) Apparently, we have mostly bounced back from the Covid slump.

But “bouncing back” is a relative term in this case because we were already less happy before the pandemic.

This is what I learned when I stumbled upon Chapter 5 of the ‘World Happiness Report’ (WHR), written by social scientist Jean M. Twenge in 2019, just before Covid threw off the data. The report focused on adolescents and young adults, but its conclusions have implications for us all.

Based on data collected over several decades, the WHR concluded that young Americans are much less happy than they were in the past, and the reasons have little to do with world events and a great deal to do with how they spend their time.

From the report’s conclusion:

“The large amount of time adolescents spend interacting with electronic devices may have direct links to unhappiness and/or may have displaced time once spent on more beneficial activities, leading to declines in happiness. It is not as certain if adults have also begun to spend less time interacting face-to-face and less time sleeping. However, given that adults in recent years spent just as much time with digital media as adolescents do, it seems likely that their time use has shifted as well…

“Thus, the fundamental shift in how adolescents spend their leisure time may explain the marked decline in adolescent well-being after 2011. It may also explain some of the decline in happiness among adults since 2000, though this conclusion is less certain. Going forward, individuals and organizations focused on improving happiness may turn their attention to how people spend their leisure time.”

While stopping short of advising us to start Christmas in October, the report does make some radical proposals for addressing our collective unhappiness – more sleep, more real live human interaction, and less time online.

That’s just crazy talk!

Seriously, though, at this point I think we all know about the detrimental effects of social media. It’s not exactly breaking news. Members of GenZ, who don’t remember a world without internet, seem both well-aware of the disease that’s depleting their joy and helpless to cure it . . .  though they do make touching efforts to treat it.

I’ll never forget taking my daughter and a small group of her friends to dinner one night many years ago – I think it was Amelia’s birthday – and watching as the girls solemnly placed their smart phones face-down in the middle of the table upon being seated.

They were in middle school at the time – maybe 8th grade? – and had already established this ritual for themselves. I had no idea! I remember being deeply moved, even tearing up a little, then grilling the girls on their thoughts about social media, with a possible column in mind.

(Incidentally, this is not an unusual response for me, a fact that has undoubtedly contributed to my daughter’s GenZ misery over the years. Heh.)

After reading the World Happiness Report last week, I spoke to my daughter on the topic of social media, this time over the phone. I reminded her of that tender scene at her long-ago birthday dinner – tender to me, anyway – and asked her if her friends still believed social media was bad for them.

“Yeah, everybody kind of knows it,” she told me. “And some people try to limit themselves. For instance, Olivia doesn’t have TikTok on her phone. I send her videos sometimes, and she loves them. She knows she’d become addicted if she had the ap, so she just doesn’t go there.” Wise young lady.

Aging adolescent that I am, I’m pleased to say I’ve chiseled away at my own social media addiction over the past year or so. Facebook has always been my drug of choice, and I’ve really weaned myself lately, checking in only once or twice a day and avoiding controversial posts. I feel better for it, though I occasionally still crave a good argument like a recovering smoker craves a cigarette.

I was pondering all this last night as Jeff and I bobbed and weaved down Bay Street during Night on the Town. Talk about your “real live human interaction!” This annual event always provides a heaping helping.

In fact, it’s become so crowded and chaotic, I sometimes feel I’ve been overserved. And I’m not talking about wine.

Tonight, we’re headed to the annual Christmas party of some dear friends. It’ll be every bit as festive – lots of real live human interaction – but a bit more intimate, and, perhaps, restorative. Like many of you, we’ve got lots of mixing and mingling on our calendar this month.

Just doing our part to add some positive data to the next World Happiness Report.