How our idea of happiness changes as we get older

We chat with a leading happiness psychologist and researcher to better understand how our meaning of happy changes as we age.

woman brunette relaxing on porch drinking

It’s amazing how happy simply relaxing can start to make you as you get older (Photo by Getty Images).

One of the toughest things to nail down about happiness is a precise definition. What does happiness actually mean? Is it a general feeling of contentment, or the sense of satisfaction that comes from a life filled with purpose? Well, I recently read a story that added yet another dimension to our varying ideas about happiness.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote an interesting piece for The Atlantic about how her idea of happiness is getting more boring with each passing year. Halvorson, who is now happy to spend Saturday nights on the couch with a good book, admits that scenario would’ve horrified her younger self. And I’ll admit, I know where Halvorson is coming from. The 22-year-old me would never have anticipated just how much joy I would one day get from a good night’s sleep.

It turns out, however, that this happiness evolution is actually supported by science. I spoke with social psychologist Jennifer Aaker to explain how the results of several recent studies help explain how and why our definition of happiness changes as we get older:

Q: Tell me about your research related to how our sense of happiness changes as we get older.
A: In a recent set of studies, we looked for evidence of how our sense of happiness changes with age by analyzing 12 million personal blogs. Specifically, we were interested in seeing what kinds of emotions the bloggers mentioned when they talked about feeling “happy”.  We found that younger bloggers described experiences of happiness as being times when they felt excited, ecstatic, or elated — the way you feel when you’re anticipating the joys the future will bring — like finding love, getting ahead at work, or moving to a new town.

Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved — the way you feel when you’re getting along with your spouse, staying healthy and able to make your mortgage payments. This kind of happiness is less about what lies ahead, and more about being content in your current circumstances.

Q: Why is it that people’s definition of happiness changes as they age?
A: The results of six new studies answer this question.

As people age, their temporal focus changes — whether they’re likely to be focused on the here and now or on the future. And it’s this temporal focus that drives the basic effects. We show that individuals’ views of happiness depend far more upon their sense of time than their age per se.

In one of the six studies, we recruited young adult volunteers — individuals who they expected would perceive happiness as an exciting experience. We told half of the volunteers to focus on the present, and to relinquish thoughts of anything but the current moment. That group of volunteers was later far more likely to define happiness as “peaceful” than the volunteers who were not led to focus on the present moment. As a result, we now believe that attitudes toward happiness are highly malleable, and, in fact, easily influenced, simply by shifting the timeframe people consider.

Q: Do you think there’s a better or worse (or more of less beneficial) way for an individual to perceive happiness?
A: I think knowing about balance may be more important than a singular way of perceiving happiness.

How has your definition of happiness changed as you’ve gotten older? Tell us in the comment section below.