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What do we do when it appears we have created a culture that sabotages the capacity to experience those deepest sources of meaning and happiness?

After $20 million and 75 years tracking the lives and well-being of 268 Harvard undergraduate men, George Vaillant shared his now famous takeaway from the unparalleled Harvard-Grant study: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Of the incredible array of factors explored, warm relationships across one’s life, beginning with mothers, fathers, spouses and children, were the key factor in happiness, well-being and productivity.

What do we do, then, when it appears we have created a culture that sabotages the capacity to experience those deepest sources of meaning and happiness? Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone recently reported in The Atlantic that happiness among young adults in America fell to “a record low” in 2019. The percentage of young adults ages 18-34 reporting that they were “very happy” in life fell to 25% — “the lowest level that the General Social Survey has ever recorded for that population.”

Why? Wilcox and Stone looked at three key factors that have significantly changed for young adults since 1972 — marriage rates, church attendance and frequency of sexual intimacy. The marriage rate among young adults has dropped by half since 1972 (59% to 28%), regular church attendance has dropped from 38% to 27% and the percentage of young adults that are sexually intimate at least once a week has fallen from 59% to 49% since 1972, and since 2010 has dropped from 58% to 43% among young men. Yet, all three factors are important predictors of being “very happy.” Married young adults are 75% more likely to say they are very happy, regular church attenders are 40% more likely to say they are very happy, and the striking increase in “sexlessness” among young adults was found to account for almost 100% of the decline in happiness in young adults since 2014. As we might expect, delayed marriage is the driving cause of sexlessness among young adults today.

Tragically, what young adults are left with today are norms that “kill” the capacity for real intimacy rather than develop it — alcohol, rampant pornography, casual sex, “faux intimacy” through online interactions and strong encouragement to delay marriage and children because they will certainly “mess up” your career plans. They continue to hunger for deep, meaningful intimacy but their experience in such a world leads many young adults to believe it is unattainable. And so for the first time we have a generation that appears to resonate with the notion of “cat person” — “a lonely human being who has either refused or is unable to achieve the risks and benefits of human intimacy.”

As Nathan and Elizabeth Schlueter insightfully wrote recently, intimacy, defined by its Latin root as “knowledge” of what is “innermost, deepest, most profound” is a “state of being deeply known and loved by another person, and of deeply knowing and loving that same person in return.” This implies great risk — requiring “both tremendous vulnerability and the deepest kind of trust,” especially with its sexual dimension “which uniquely involves the whole person, body, and soul.” That is why earlier generations were insistent on maintaining the “conventions” that protected and guided men and women in developing the trust necessary to experience real intimacy, only possible within the security of committed, married love.

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If we want more of our young adults to experience the relational warmth Vaillant concluded meant everything to happiness and well-being, we will have to restore the norms that in Wilcox and Stone’s words, make it easier for young adults to “achieve stable, coupled life.” That means being more culturally honest about the importance of choosing marriage and children and devoting one’s life to them, even in young adulthood. It means being more honest about the importance of religion in providing norms that protect the capacity to form deep, lasting intimate relationships, and a safe context in which to develop those relationships. And it means being more honest about the impact pornography, and digital use in general, has on our ability to develop the capacity for, and experience real intimacy in our relationships. Then we can begin to work toward securing what we all want for them — the joy that can only be found in deep, committed, warm relationships.