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Adolescent Annihilation Fears and Lifetime Happiness: Insights from a Long-Term Longitudinal Study

On December 06 Klaus Boehnke (PhD, Professor, Bremen Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), Jacobs University Bremen, Germany; co-head,International Scientific-Educational Laboratory for Socio-Cultural ResearchNational Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow) took part in the "Culture matters" research seminar with the report "Adolescent Annihilation Fears and Lifetime Happiness: Insights from a Long-Term Longitudinal Study".

During the 1980s East-West political tensions were at their last height. Nuclear missiles had been deployed in central Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and people were highly fearful that a nuclear war would commence. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear war (IPPNW) with legs in many countries (including the Soviet Union) started a forceful campaign against the increasing war threat. In 1985, IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize. In the same year a study was initiated in the then West Germany among youthful activists, supporters and sympathizers of the peace movement. During the summer of 1985, a snowball sample of 1492 adolescents was surveyed, who were willing to leave their address with the research team of the author. Since then a core sample of well over 200 of these participants has been surveyed in nine further waves of data gathering, each 3 ½ years apart. Participants were initially 14 years of age on average and are thus in their mid-forties in Wave 10 (conducted in 2016/17). In each of the ten surveys, participants were asked how probable they think a nuclear war is ‘during the next year,’ ‘during the next five years,’ ‘during the next 20 years,’ and ‘some when in the future.’ Multivariate repeated measures ANOVAs were performed to test for mean differences across time with the result that there is in general a drop in mean subjective probabilities of nuclear war, accompanied by (war) event-related oscillation.

In a second analytic step, subjective probabilities of nuclear war across time were related to current-day political activism and current-day happiness (measured by the Fordyce 11-stage HappinessIndex). Results show that (a) the higher the subjective probability of a nuclear war across the lifespan, the higher current-day political engagement, and (b) the lower the subjective probability of nuclear war, the lower current-day happiness. Results are discussed in the framework of a psychodynamic resource model: people with more individual resources have a higher potential to engage politically against a perceived danger, whereas people who displace a perceived danger tend to be less happy.