The U-Bend of happiness

As a kid, did you ever dream of being a certain age? When I was really little, I wanted to be “big” so that I could go to work like my dad. Mostly because I loved the french fries in the cafeteria. As teenagers, my suburban friends would dream about the freedom that came at sixteen with the learner’s permit. And in college, who didn’t count down the days until your 21st birthday? Once I hit that birthday, I stopped wanting to be a different age.

What’s the perfect age?

Well, we can start with what apparently isn’t. There’s the well-documented U-Bend of happiness, a longitudinal study in which participants were surveyed about their happiness. Once the childhood innocence and joy faded (around age 20) there was a stunning trough until age fifty, at which point happiness started to climb again. Some of the happiest folks out there are in their 70s. Think about that — US life expectancy is 78, yet they feel time affluent!

Why the thirty-odd year trough of unhappiness? Blind childhood optimism meets adult realities. Stress about work, money and kids. We try to stand out within our tribe.

Expectations, meet reality

And then there’s expectations. I’m sure that as a child, many of you fantasized about becoming president, vets, athletes, or astronauts. You could call these dreams, unhindered by expectations and probabilities.

Somewhere along the way these dreams hardened and turn into expectations. Why? As social creatures, there’s the irresistible force of external validation. It gets even more confusing when you add financial security, meaning, and mortality into the mix. And with expectations comes the attachment to specific outcomes. Some are subconscious, some set by our peers and others are downright arbitrary. This isn’t a dig at ambition, instead it’s an invitation to look more closely at ambition itself. Let’s now revisit the trough, then the inflection point of the happiness curve:

“Middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery. Eventually, however, expectations stop declining. They settle at a lower level than in youth, and reality begins exceeding them. Surprises turn predominantly positive, and life satisfaction swings upward.

What the woke 70 year olds know

I’m unwilling to accept that I’m at the midpoint of 30 year happiness trough. So what pearls of wisdom can we steal from these wise septuagenarians?

  • None went to a job he did not like, coveted stuff she could not afford, brooded over a slight on the subway or lost sleep over events in the distant future.
  • They came to accept their strengths and weaknesses, gave up hoping to become CEO and learned to be satisfied as assistant branch manager, or with their watercolour on display at the church fete.
  • They have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict.
  • They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger.
  • They cherished the small, daily interactions, and set realistic goals.
  • They had known adversity and survived.

So back to our original question — what’s the perfect age? The “exact time that you realize how absolutely short life is” and “how completely lucky you are.”

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