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When are your happiest years? Adjust your expectations and read on Add to ...

Happiness might be hard to measure, but apparently you’re likely to overestimate it when you’re younger.

A new study published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics has confirmed that a U-shape exists in human well-being as people get older, with levels dipping during midlife.

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“One theory is that the U-shape is driven by unmet aspirations which are painfully felt in midlife but beneficially abandoned later in life,” the study says.

“A complementary theory builds on the neuroscientific finding that the emotional reaction to missed chances decreases with age so that the elderly might feel less regret about unmet aspirations.”

If you’re 21 and reading this, you might say, “Nonsense! My happiness won’t take a nosedive when I’m older!” But of course you’re just proving the study correct.

It found that youths were more likely to overestimate their future happiness levels. It also found that young people were likely to assume they would live good, healthy lives free of anything negative like divorce.

To do the study, the researchers looked at data from the German Socio-Economic Panel which includes 23,000 people who rated their current life satisfaction and their life satisfaction expectations in five years’ time.

It found that the error margins were wide: There was a 9.8-per-cent overestimation of future life satisfaction at age 21, and an underestimation of 4.5 per cent at age 68.

The stats aren’t all bad – it’s great that people are typically happier than anticipated when they get older. The study says this information could be helpful in stopping such a large drop in life satisfaction during midlife. It could help people “optimize important decisions in their lives and suffer less when aspirations are not met.”

Are fewer or less grand expectations really the way to go here? What do you think – should we just stop reaching high to avoid the valley on this U-shape of happiness as we age? Or is there something else we can do to avoid lower life satisfaction during midlife?

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