When you reflect on your life are there certain years that stick out as particularly joy-filled? The year you could legally order yourself a cocktail? Your time at university? When you finally got your dream job? Researchers have discovered that happiness peaks at two points in life, and even though one might be behind you, the other is yet to come.
The Centre of Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science interviewed 23,000 German adults aged 17–85, quizzing them on their life satisfaction and asking them to predict how happy they envisioned being in five years time. That exact time later, those same people were re-interviewed to see if the reality matched their expectations.
What the team discovered was a happiness U-curve between ages 20 and 70, with joy peaking at 23 and 69. Twenty-three is typically an age when we’re full of momentum and optimism about the future, which makes it the more predictable of the two, perhaps. Sixty-nine, however, is possibly an age when the stresses of the unknown are behind us and we can enjoy the fruits of our labor, both professional and personal.
Interestingly, researchers noted that younger people tended to overestimate the happiness of their future selves, while the older people tended to underestimate it, so during the followup interviews the twenty-somethings reported being disillusioned by the last five years (career stress! dating dramas!), while the sixty-somethings were pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of their lives.
The things we imagine will make us happy inevitably disappoint (as they say, expectation is the thief of joy), and studies suggest we’re better off prioritizing life’s simple pleasures. A walk outdoors on a sunny day, regular endorphin-boosting exercise, listening to our favorite music, nurturing close friendships and adopting an attitude of gratitude—in other words choosing to be happy—are all fail-safe ways to feel more positive about life.