“Every day is better than the one before it,” sang Al Stewart in a bouncy, optimistic song about Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. Thinking that things will keep getting better can be a motivator, but life is more of an up-and-down affair than a series of constant improvements. According to a recent study, older people realize that and have fewer illusions about possible future happiness (and also more accurate recall of past mindsets).
Researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 adults in the US ranging in age from 24 to 74 in 1995-1996, and then again nine years later. They asked about current levels of satisfaction with life and projections for the future. The overall trend was that younger people (under 65) appeared to see life as a sort of a progression, with the present better than the past and the future projected to be even better yet. On the other hand, those over 65 saw the past and the present as being about equally satisfactory, and they did not anticipate as much satisfaction in the future. The younger people were not as accurate in projecting their future state of mind (they thought they’d be more satisfied than they were).
What’s particularly interesting is that across all the age groups, having realistic views of the past and future was linked to “the most adaptive functioning across a broad array of variables”. One of the things I enjoy about getting older is the perspective that you get from having a wider range of experiences to draw on as you face new situations (this is especially valuable for difficult new situations). I’m 47 now, so maybe I can look forward to greater self-awareness and a more realistic grasp of life’s possibilities and limitations by the time I hit 65. (Sounds like I just need to keep my expectations reasonable.) This press release from EurekAlert provides more details, and the paper itself, which will appear in the September 2008 issue of Psychological Science, is available online in PDF format: Realism and Illusion in Americans’ Temporal Views of Their Life Satisfaction: Age Differences in Reconstructing the Past and Anticipating the Future. Margie E. Lachman, Christina Röcke, Christopher Rosnick, and Carol D. Ryff.