At this point, many studies have examined how your overall sense of happiness (or what psychologists sometimes call “well-being,” because that sounds more scientific) changes over the course of your life. Across the world, you see a similar pattern, which is that your happiness declines from your teens into your twenties, and stays low until about the age of 50 after which it starts to rise again and continues to rise through your sixties.
It is important to say two things up front: The observation that the average level of happiness across people goes down in your twenties and stays lower does not mean that this pattern necessarily happens to all people. There are some people whose happiness doesn’t change much, or who may have life circumstances that drive their happiness lower even later in life.
In addition, there are big individual differences in how happy people are overall. Some researchers have suggested that this reflects a happiness set point for people, where some are naturally pretty happy, and others are not. Even if you’re happier than the average person, though, your own happiness may still be lower in your twenties, thirties, and forties than in your teens or fifties and sixties.
So why does this happen?
If you look at how happy and satisfied with your life you are at any given moment, about half of your overall level of happiness comes from that genetically determined happiness set point. The rest is related both to the situation you’re in at the moment, as well as the events of your recent past. If you have recently had a significant illness, are struggling financially, or are dealing with a lot of stress in your personal life, then that will drag down your sense of well-being.
People in their fifties and sixties have a lot of more positive situational factors that affect happiness than younger people. Surveys suggest that people in this age range are more secure about their finances than people who are younger. Younger people are typically paid less money than older people (who have more experience), even though they are often trying to purchase a home and to start a family. Not only are older adults often paid more, but their children have often left home and finished their education. Older adults may also feel more secure about their careers, because they have a better sense of how the rest of their careers are going to play out before they decide to retire.
If you haven’t hit your forties yet, is there anything you can do to improve your well-being beyond waiting until you get older? Happily there is.
A big drag on well-being in your younger years is uncertainty. You don’t know how your life or your career is going to turn out, and you worry about it. If you haven’t found a partner and hope to find one, then you worry about it. If you have started a family, you don’t know how parenting is going to go, so you worry about it.
But, you don’t necessarily have to worry about uncertainty. You can also treat it as an adventure. Reframe those unknowns as a chance to visit the undiscovered country of your future. You may still experience a little anxiety about upcoming events, but if that anxiety is mostly excitement, it may help you to enjoy things in the moment—even if those events don’t turn out exactly the way you planned.
One way to help you do that is to look back on other periods of your life. For example, most people remember high school as being a wonderful and blissful time of life free of responsibilities and full of time to be with friends and discover yourself. Yet, the actual day-to-day experience of high school students also involves a lot of anxiety about growing up and getting into college or getting a job. The reason why high school looks better in the rear-view mirror is that the uncertainty (and the associated anxiety) is gone. You know how your life has turned out so far.
So, remember that when you look back on your life now from vantage point 10 or 20 years in the future, you will also remember it fondly, because you’ll know how things turned out. If you’re going to enjoy these times later, you may as well enjoy them now, too. You’ll control the aspects of your life that you can and you’ll let the random events have their influence and accept or deal with the consequences. By focusing on what you have and what you can control, you help keep uncertainty from dragging down your mood.
Also, when you look back on your life you probably won’t feel bad about the size of the place where you lived or the number of good meals you were able to eat at restaurants. You’ll think about your friends, your family, your accomplishment, and your adventures. That means that even the amount of money you have at any given moment won’t seem so important to you when you’re looking back on it. Even though it can be stressful to be in a position where you’re barely making ends meet, focus more on what you are able to do than what you’re not.