Our happiness varies through life. You may not know that typically the way happiness varies with age is predictable.
I’ve actually looked at a lot of research on happiness, and even wrote a book about it. When I gave talks about it, one angle in particular appealed to people: the way happiness tends to change with age. That’s my focus here.
Happiness is typically high when we’re young, it declines as we live our lives, and then it turns up again in the middle years of life, eventually surpassing the high level in our youth. The average age at which the curve turns upwards varies from country to country, but typically it bottoms out between 40 and 60. (Are you already wondering where you fit on this curve? People tell me it’s their first thought!) That pattern occurs in every country in which people have been asked about their happiness.
Of course, the big question is: why? And I think I’ve found an explanation. Let me start with the psychological aspect of the explanation. Here’s the simplified version.
When we’re young we lack experience. We know nothing! But we’re going to change the world, right? In our youth, therefore, we seek knowledge and experience, through adventure. We seek excitement. Our anticipation is that adventure and excitement will bring happiness. We imagine how well things are going to turn out. “They lived happily ever after!” – that sort of feeling. This is emotional, driven by our powerful limbic system, a part of the brain we share with mammals.
As we age and gain experience, we start to realize that few things work out as well as we expected or hoped. And we have the psychological and financial stresses of career advancement, and creating and raising a family. Of course many of these things bring their own happiness. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And it’s the day-to-day stressful details, the complications we didn’t expect, that reduce our happiness. At some stage we realize – and what triggers it varies from person to person, it varies in the intensity of the realization; for some people it’s a cathartic mid-life crisis – but at some stage, we realize that life will never be perfect.
The neocortex in our brain (it’s the part that does analysis; it’s unique to hominids, like human beings and apes) – the neocortex, as it evaluates what we’ve been through, makes us more realistic. We recognise that perfection as a goal is very difficult, because we can’t anticipate the little things that don’t go quite right.
Aging not only reduces the number of areas in which our emotional perfectionist urge stays dominant. It also causes us to expect less from life, and to settle for less than perfection. There’s a technical word for this: it’s called satisficing.
Instead of “I’ll accept nothing short of perfection!” satisficing says: “Pretty good is … pretty good! And it’s enough!” We see the glass as half full rather than half empty. It’s the contest, the tension, between the powerful, emotion-driven limbic system, and the surprisingly less powerful, rational neocortex. Our measuring stick changes, as we age. It moves from over-optimistic standards (where everything falls short, and causes regret) to reality (where some things are pretty good). The neocortex finally starts to assert itself. And then we find happiness in contentment, experiencing the things that are trusted and true. Another way to say this, is that we start to count our blessings.
There’s also a neurological explanation for this, based on how the brain is built, but that’s another story that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that this aging effect on happiness is essentially hard-wired into us.
Hey, I hear you ask, if that’s true, why don’t 20-year-olds yearn to be 70? Why, instead, do 70-year-olds yearn to be 20 again?
It’s true, of course, that 20-year-olds hate the thought of ever turning 70. That would deprive them of the chance to experience life. But what the 70-year-olds really yearn for is more complex than just being 20 again. What they’re really saying is: “I’d love to be 20 again, with my life ahead of me, but with the wisdom and experience I have gained, and the perspective I have developed. If I had all that, I’d be much happier the second time around.” You know, it’s true: youth is wasted on the young.
Anyway, I’m guessing that all of that is a surprise to most of you, as it was to me. But the fact is that, at almost any age, the best in happiness is yet to come!
A final word, in memory of my wonderful father-in-law. He always loved a poem written by Robert Browning and called Rabbi Ben Ezra. (The name is a coincidence – my father-in-law had no idea there would be an Ezra marrying into his family.) It starts: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made”. I don’t like to think of this stage as the last of life; I prefer a slight change in words, and I think of this stage as “the best of life, for which the rest was made.”
That’s a destination in our learning: that it’s natural that these turn out to be the happiest years of your life.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.