The Atlantic recently ran this terrific article by Jonathan Rauch about the nearly universal u-shaped path of happiness that most humans and some primates follow: Happiness starts relatively high in early adulthood, declining steadily until late 40s or early 50s, when it picks up again until the final years. It appears to be much more difficult for people in their middle years to be happy than at other times in adulthood. Several important takeaways for better decision-making follow from these observations.
In the early adult years, people have the mistaken impression that they can accomplish anything and thus set unrealistically high goals. My takeaway: This may drive risky and biased decisions. In early adulthood, people should recognize and compensate for their tendencies to set unrealistic goals motivated by social pressures, materialism and competition.
Midlife is when people tend to be increasingly disappointed in their failure to meet the unrealistic expectations of youth. This disappointment can be worsened by expectations declining even faster than happiness is. My takeaway: In middle age, people should recognize that dissatisaction is natural and common and may not be atributable to one’s career, relationships or lifestyle. So, think twice before making major decisions affecting these. Recognize that (on average) happier times are likely ahead.
It turns out that many people reach their peak happiness in their late 60s. Older people may be happier because they focus less on comparing and competing with others and more on building relationships. Furthermore, they may be better at being in the moment, savoring their current experiences, spending less time worrying about the future; they may therefore set more realistic expectations and goals. He cites research that older people are indeeed wiser. They have “compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity.”
I would love to find research that confirms that older people do in fact make measurably better decisions. Until then, it seems reasonable to further suggest to people in early and mid-adulthood that they rely on the wisdom of elders and attempt to emulate the latter’s equanimity, tolerance and ability to be in the present when making important decisions.