How Being Optimistic in Your Teens Comes Back to Haunt You in Your 30s

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Photo: Eleonora Festari / EyeEm

Enjoy your youth, kids, because life is pretty much downhill from your 30th birthday. This is, essentially, the bummer of a finding from a big new study examining happiness across the lifespan, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which Allison P. Davis at the Cut covered earlier this week

While previous research had identified an upward trend in life satisfaction across the years — that is, as people get older, they tend to get happier — this new report found that by the 2010s, this had reversed. Teens and twentysomethings are happier than they used to be, but people 30 years old and older are less satisfied with their lives than previous generations. And this was no small survey of undergrads, as social psychology studies often are. These researchers — led by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University — analyzed data from some substantial national surveys, including a total of 1.27 million teenagers and more than 50,000 adults (ages 18 to 96).

The researchers can only speculate about why getting older is less fun than ever, but it seems the downturn in happiness among today’s thirtysomethings is the lasting effect of an overly optimistic youth, Twenge said. “This is something I’ve thought about for a while,” she told Science of Us. It’s the natural, if unintended, backfiring of a childhood filled with messages like, You can be anything you want to be! (Twenge explores more about this in her book Generation Me.)

Soaring expectations, if left unmet, can lead to crushing disappointment; this is the kind of common-sense statement that happens to also be backed up by a raft of psychological research. The examples of this pattern in the literature range from the trivial, like the fun Dan Ariely–led study that found New Year’s Eve partygoers with the highest hopes for a magical night out ended up rating their evenings as less fun as those who had a more measured outlook about the night ahead. And then there’s the study Twenge mentions in her Atlantic write-up of her research, which claimed that people’s happiness about the money they walked away with after participating in a study was dependent on whether the experimenter had goaded them into expecting more or less than the amount they actually got.

For that matter, consider a 2006 study published in the BMJ, which identified a counterintuitive reason why those Danes are so damn happy (Denmark consistently is listed near the top of global happiness rankings). The authors of that study pointed out that Danish “expectations for the coming year are rather low,” whereas the data show that “Italy and Greece, which rank lowest on life satisfaction, rank high on expectations for the year to come.”

Likewise, there is some empirical evidence that people turning 30 in the 2010s did indeed have higher expectations for their lives when they were teenagers as compared to teenagers in generations past. Twenge nods to a large national survey of high-school seniors that she and her colleagues looked at when putting together their research, one that asked the teenagers what they expected their adult lives to look like. “Expectations in those areas have grown by a lot — in some case, doubled — since the ‘70s,” she said. For example, in the 1970s, less than half of high-school students surveyed expected to be in a managerial position by the time they turned 30; today, 64 percent of high schoolers assume they’ll be the boss by their 30s. “And yet the people who get those jobs … has hardly changed at all,” Twenge added. For that matter, income inequality is surely a factor here, too. “When you’re young, you don’t know how your career is going to turn out,” Twenge said. “You’re young, and you think, Well, I’m going to be the one who’s going to make it. But by the law of averages, most people are not going to make it.”

Beyond income and career, Americans are expecting more than they ever have from their marriages, too, as Northwestern University psychologist Eli Finkel has argued. Whereas your spouse was once there to help you meet the most basic of needs — tilling the fields and whatnot — many people now look to their husband or wife to “to fulfill needs like self-esteem, self-expression and personal growth.” As Finkel explained to Science of Us in an email back in June, “More and more marriages are struggling to achieve those lofty standards, especially on top of all of the other stresses in our lives.” Yet another example of huge and hard-to-meet hopes leading to disillusionment.

So, what is the answer to adopt a more pessimistic attitude toward your future? That’s one way to go about it, but it’s not the only solution — and, anyway, it’s not as if 30-year-olds in 2015 can visit their 18-year-old selves in 2003 to talk them down from their sky-high hopes and dreams. (For that matter, this would imply that time-traveling exists in 2015, which would raise those expectations right up all over again.) “I think this is a difficult line to walk,” Twenge said. “Sometimes, when I’ve written about these things, people say, ’Oh, we should just tell kids to not aim high.’ Well, okay, let’s back up. It can be a good thing to have higher expectations and to aim high and have high goals! But it’s a trade-off — if they’re too high, and they’re not met, it can lead to disappointment, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”

There is a way to manage the disappointment that comes from unmet expectations, said Twenge’s co-author, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky. A quick caveat: It is kind of corny. Lyubomirsky’s research has shown the underrated power of gratitude, and that “focusing on appreciating and expressing gratitude for what you have,” she said. Lyubomirsky believes that escalating expectations are especially damaging: You get a corner office and you wish it was bigger; you meet a great guy and you wish he was taller. It’s what’s known as the hedonic treadmill, the idea that humans are very good at adapting to what they have. Gratitude, Lyubomirsky argues, is one reliable way out of that pattern.

When you’re grateful, it moves you to sort of want to be better — to pay back, and pay it forward, and prove yourself worthy of all the people in your life who have contributed to your success and happiness,” she said. It’s a pretty appropriate time of year to try it out, anyway.