Let’s just say we partied like…er, we were back in university again. This was the scene late last week when I got together with two old friends from my post-secondary days. And as the night wore on and the beer-infused chatter got looser, we took our conversations deeper about how life had treated us over the past decade or two. Parenting, marriage, divorce, career evolutions and broken friendships were dissected throughout the night leaving me the next day not only feeling the effects of that beer, but thinking about how far we’d all come since we met in residence our first year at school.
It also got me wondering: at what age are people happiest? Were we happier back then? More naïve and optimistic, yet less anchored and settled into our lives? Or are we more satisfied now? After all, our careers are all contentedly progressing well, we’ve developed relationships, families and we’re all homeowners now. It’s truly hard to tell.
So the topic of age and happiness was already on my mind when this study popped up in my inbox, noting that not only do people often make mistakes in how happy they predict their lives will be, but that young people especially overestimate how satisfied their lives will be. (Conversely, the study noted that elderly people tend to underestimate how happy their lives are.)
But why? I asked Dr. Hannes Schwandt of Princeton University, whose study on age, expectations and happiness was just published by the Centre for Economic Performance. “Psychologists, biologists and neuroscientists all have evidence of a general optimism bias in young people. This might simply be evolutionary efficient,” he says. However, he notes that as we age, people learn that their youthful expectations don’t always match their current situations or life satisfaction. “However, as they beneficially abandon their expectations and at the same time are able to feel less regret about past disappointments — this ability of elderly to feel less regret has been shown in brain studies — their life satisfaction increases again — unexpectedly.”
Then…where does this leave us happiness-wise? Dr. Schwandt emphasizes that healthy, youthful optimism is positive — we shouldn’t try to change it. (Thank goodness.) But realize that by midlife, things will not seem as rosy as you anticipated they would be.
People in their fifties could learn a little from the elderly, who generally feel less regret,” adds Dr. Schwandt. “They should try not to be frustrated with their unmet expectations because they are probably not feeling much worse than their peers.”
At what age have you been your happiest thus far? Tell us in the comment section below.