How happy are you in your life now? and how happy do you think you will feel in 5 years?
As you can imagine, this question may seem simple at first, but the more you think about it, the more complex it may become. In an extensive life satisfaction study* performed over recent decades, these questions have been asked of many thousands of people across varying socio-economic groups and countries and you may be surprised to hear that the results were amazingly similar.
Here is what the study found
First of all, it seems that, as humans, our levels of satisfaction (happiness) in life seems to form a ‘U-shaped’ curve with the first peak being reached at the age of 23 and a second high peak being reached at the ripe old age of 69. The bad news is that from our mid-20s onwards up until our late 50s, we become less happy in life. The lowest point being hit around the age of 58 or so. Then, from that point forward, we start getting happy again.
The Second interesting point noted in the study is that, whether young or old, we’re all pretty lousy in predicting how we’re going to feel in the future. When asked, younger people were inclined to become more disappointed than they expected and older people were inclined to become happier than they expected.
*Expected and Current Age U-shape in Human Wellbeing
For younger people it was a matter of having too high expectations of future happiness with more life disappointments and with older people, it was about having too low expectations of happiness with more actual life happiness.
What’s the reason for this?
Well, it may just be about our expectations in life. You see, humans are pretty optimistic animals by nature and by the time we reach our early 20s, most of us are pretty happy (in general). We have quite high expectations that things will get even better for us in the future and this will make us happier. And it really doesn’t matter if we are talking about an increase in earnings or something else that important to us. We’re just plain happy.
But, unfortunately, as with most of us, life has a way of lowering those levels of optimism as we age. If our aspirations aren’t met (as many aren’t), we become increasingly disappointed with life and this further lowers our optimism or expectations. This cycle repeats over the years and decades.
But, the interesting thing is that about the time we reach our late 50s, we have better come to accept our life for what it’s been – not having reached everything we expected. This low point is reached as our expected life happiness level declines and become more closely aligned to our current life happiness levels. In other words, we’re under less of an illusion about what life has in store for us. Ergo, we become more mindful and realistic. Once we reach this point, lo and behold, we strangely start feeling happier again.
Another explanation for this turning point says that by the age of 58, we simply release a large chunk of our past feelings of regret and disappointment, and we don’t get so upset if we fail at something or don’t reach the desired aspiration. We’re more psychologically balanced to receive a disappointment, adapt to it accordingly and move on without experiencing a major emotional event.
What’s interesting is that even after the age of 58, most people cannot accurately predict how happy they will feel in 5 years time. In contrast to people in their 20s who have high expectations for future happiness, older people’s future expectations seem to fall below their actual levels of happiness. They simply don’t expect themselves to be happy when, in fact, there are happier.
This would seem to be an area that needs to be worked on…
So, although living a happy life is a goal for all of us, we should remember that while we are young, we are full of optimism and are generally happy. We expect ever more happiness to reach us over the years. Over time, real-life experiences align how happy we are and how happy we think we will be in the future. By our late 50s, we seem to reach a bottoming out level as we come to greater levels of acceptance and understanding. And then, from this point onwards, ironically, happiness increases once again.
One thing is for sure. most of us probably won’t be able to predict it correctly!
I want to close by saying that the science of determining happiness and predicting happiness is obviously obscure in itself.
I do agree that we seem to balance ourselves out with time, but I would love to hear what you think? If you would like to share some of your insights and experience on this topic, please write to me at email@example.com.
Until next time.
Randy Simor MD
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