Healthy Teenagers are Happier

High-risk behaviors in teens are associated with lower levels of happiness

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

It may seem fairly typical when adolescents hit the teen years and begin experimenting with risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking and eating more junk food. It may seem like teenage rebellion that isn't uncommon; but new research shows that not only are these teens choosing unhealthy lifestyle options, they are also far less happy.

Researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex wondered how much risky teen behavior went hand-in-hand with unhappiness, and not just rebellious behavior. Using information from a long-term study of 40,000 UK households called Understanding Society, the ISER team looked at the responses of 5,000 youth between the ages of 10-15 to questions about their health-related behaviors and levels of happiness.

They found that the young people who turned their backs on a healthy lifestyle and began partaking of junk food, tobacco products and alcohol were significantly unhappier than their healthier peers. Researchers found that:

  • Never drinking any alcohol resulted in between a four and six times greater likelihood to have higher levels of happiness than those who reported any alcohol consumption.
  • Smoking youths were about five times less likely to have higher happiness scores when compared to youths who never smoked.
  • Higher happiness scores were seen in subjects who ate more fruits and vegetables and less junk food
  • Happiness increased with increasing amounts of participating in sports per week

The ISER team believes the results show that such unhealthy behaviors are closely linked to lower happiness in teenagers, and found this to be the case even when other factors such as gender, age, family income and parents' education were taken into account.

“What this research shows us is that young people across the social spectrum are failing to eat healthy balanced diets and are starting to consume alcohol at a young age," said Dr. Cara Booker, one of the study's co-authors. "This is storing up problems for later life, because we know that there are clear long-term links between health-related behaviours and well-being in adulthood. Helping young people to reduce damaging health choices as they start making independent decisions are important in order to reduce the number of adults at risk from chronic disease because of their low well-being and poor health-related behaviours.”

Previous findings in the Understanding Society report show that the ages of 12-13 are the "catalyst" years, when young people typically turn away from younger, healthier habits and begin to engage in risky behaviors. For example, while only two percent of 10-12 year olds reported smoking, that number jumped to 12 percent in the 13-15 year old bracket.

The percentage differences in alcohol consumption were even more striking. Eight percent of 10-12 year olds reported having had an alcoholic drink in the last month; but for 13-15 year olds, that figure jumped to 41 percent. The Understanding Society report also showed that in the 13-15 age range, when young people are given more autonomy, their eating and exercise habits both become less healthy.

"This study raises important questions, particularly about the link between happiness and lifestyle choices made by the young," says Dr. Barbara Long, an Atlanta psychiatrist who was not involved in the research. "For instance, are those youth who are generally unhappy because of home life or genetic factors more likely to make such unhealthy choices or do these choices create physiological unbalances that lead to feelings of unhappiness? Are teens who smoke, drink, consume junk food, and fail to get exercise simply modeling the choices made by the adults around them, especially family members? Changing lifestyle choices and habits are difficult to do, but raising awareness of the problem, as this research does, is the first step."

Understanding Society was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which commissioned the study and is supported by a total of 11 Government departments and administrations. The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivered the study.

Review Date: 
March 13, 2012