In the past few years, references to the opioid epidemic, drug poisonings, and associated feelings of despair among Americans, primarily working-class whites, have flooded the media, and related patterns of mortality have been of increasing interest to social scientists. Yet, despite recurring references to distress or despair in journalistic accounts and academic studies, there has been little analysis of whether psychological health among American adults has worsened over the past two decades. Here, we use data from national samples of adults in the mid-1990s and early 2010s to demonstrate increasing distress and declining well-being that was concentrated among low-socioeconomic-status individuals but spanned the age range from young to older adults.
Although there is little dispute about the impact of the US opioid epidemic on recent mortality, there is less consensus about whether trends reflect increasing despair among American adults. The issue is complicated by the absence of established scales or definitions of despair as well as a paucity of studies examining changes in psychological health, especially well-being, since the 1990s. We contribute evidence using two cross-sectional waves of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study to assess changes in measures of psychological distress and well-being. These measures capture negative emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, and positive emotions such as happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction. Most of the measures reveal increasing distress and decreasing well-being across the age span for those of low relative socioeconomic position, in contrast to little decline or modest improvement for persons of high relative position.
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