Why Are Young Liberals So Unhappy?

Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on July 19, 2023.

It turns out that a worldview built on perpetual outrage isn't healthy

We know America is experiencing a mental health crisis, but the Youth Risk Behavior Survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) illustrates just how serious the problem has become for America’s young people. Almost three in five teenage girls felt persistent sadness in 2021. Girls are twice as likely to be depressed as boys and one in three girls said they seriously considered suicide.

Several factors are relevant. Social media had negatively impacted mental health long before the response to COVID-19 made the problem worse. Perhaps most surprising data concerned the CDC’s conclusion that a teenager’s political views impacted his or her levels of depression.

The study, released in December of 2022, found that liberal teens are more likely to be depressed than their conservative peers. In fact, liberal boys are more likely to be depressed than conservative girls, which suggests that political beliefs are more significant than gender when it comes to depression.

The authors of the study attempted to explain the depression of liberal teenagers in two ways. First, the authors suggest liberal teens are depressed because they live in a world dominated by conservative values. The report stated that more liberal teenagers “may have therefore experienced alienation with a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.” Few conservatives would agree with the suggestion that conservative political attitudes have achieved cultural dominance.

Alternatively, the authors of the study suggest that progressive kids might be more depressed because they are being targeted—directly or indirectly—by conservatives. The study claimed that “heightened awareness and experience of conservative actions to restrict their rights may have compounded emotional distress.” Is the world just kinder to conservative teenagers?

This doesn’t seem to match reality.

It’s telling that liberal writer Matthew Yglesias isn’t buying it. He wrote: “The catalog of woes offered in the paper sounds less to me like a causal explanation of why progressive teens have more depressive affect than it does like listening to a depressed liberal give an account of recent American politics.” Perhaps liberal adults can’t explain the depression of liberal young people because they are afflicted by the same malady.

We should at least consider the possibility that the modern liberal worldview is just depressing.

Partisan differences in America used to be different. In the recent past, they were defined by prudential disagreements over the size of government, foreign policy, marginal tax rates, the scope of appropriate regulation, or the most effective way to help the poor. Today, our political differences are defined by disagreements over the question of whether biology or feelings determine someone’s gender. These are not prudential differences, they’re existential.

The instinctive reactions to the continuing crisis of school shootings illustrate this point. Half the country is quick to assert “only God can fix this” while the other half is quick to say, “only government can fix this.” Of course, not all conservatives are religious nor are all liberals secular, but that is the undeniable trend.

At the heart of modern liberalism is the belief that we belong to ourselves. The “my body, my choice” worldview offers a sense of control but provides no solutions when things are out of control, and liberals are convinced of nothing if not the fact that things are going poorly: The American dream is a sham, climate change will kill us all, and systemic racism is eternal.

Not only does modern liberalism require awareness of the problems, both real and imagined, it demands a fixation on them. The Prayer of Serenity has been replaced by “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” It’s not enough simply to treat people well. “If you’re not anti-racist, you’re racist.” Doing your part to make the world better is insufficient because, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” It’s exhausting.

Yglesias notes that the left’s perpetual outrage has turned anger and depression into a form of virtue. He argues that progressive adults “valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment.” The good liberal knows only the ignorant and apathetic have time to be happy. Since we know the world’s problems will never end, their moment for contentment, rest, and gratitude will never come.

Christians have a way to cope with a broken world. Jesus promised us that we would have trouble, but He told us to take heart because He has overcome the world. (John 16:33). Our worldview demands joy despite the circumstances because our hope transcends the circumstances. Today’s secular liberals have no such hope. Their joy will come once they’ve worked hard enough to fix all the problems. No wonder they’re depressed.