How will you spend your happiest years?

Those of you younger than 46, take heart; you will become happier! No, I didn’t find that inserted into a fortune cookie; it is a claim based on research. According to an article in The Economist (12/18/2010) age 46 is the global average for being unhappiest during your lifetime. Of course there will be people who, in retrospect, will claim their 30s and 40s were the happiest years of their lives and this also possible. However, generally studies are built on averages, and researchers have found that on average, people become increasingly happier after their early 50s. If you knew you would be happier in the years to come, what influence would it have as you plan your signature legacy?

For millennia, human beings have wondered what makes them happy. While no definitive answer exists, we know more about what contributes to happiness.  Positive psychology researchers like Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., (author of The How of Happiness), suggest life circumstances influence 10% of our happiness and 50% is governed by a genetic set point. That means a whopping 40% is determined by our intentional activities (what we do/how we think).  Other researchers, as the article reports, have reviewed data from many different surveys about what makes people happy in their lives and found four factors: gender, personality, external circumstances, and age. Good news for women, extroverts who like working in teams, and those who are married, and are well-educated, as all of you are more likely to report being happy. Especially if you are in your 50s or older.

Public policy and economic researchers have studied the U-bend of age related to happiness, or general well-being. The U-bend indicates that people report being happy in their late teens and early 20s. This is followed by a downward trend in which the lowest point for happiness occurs in people in their late 40s, when worry peaks, sadness rises and enjoyment and happiness dip. Each of these then turn in the opposite direction and well-being starts a steep upward trajectory for people well into their 80s! This is true across the globe, accounts for cohort effect, and even controls for wealth, status, and children.

One possible reason for this upward trajectory, particularly in Western countries, is the increase in EQ as we age. Often referred to as emotional intelligence, EQ encompasses levels of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. The Economist article reports older people tend to handle conflict more productively, are better at managing their emotions and less prone to anger, and better at accepting misfortune. They are also less prone to anger. Age, suggests Stanford University professor Laura Carstensen, allows us to focus on what matters. As we age, we also recognize and accept our strengths and weaknesses.

This is good news for baby boomers as they ride that upward trajectory in the U-bend! Happy people are healthier and more productive. The positive emotions that contribute to happiness help buffer us against the difficult times, and increase creativity and engagement. These represent near perfect conditions to create plans for your post-retirement future. Increased happiness represents an opportunity to think broadly about your future rather than closely focused on career. Happiness provides the conditions that illuminate the possibilities. What will you do with your happiest years?