By Arthur C. Brooks
Imagine yourself 10 years from now. Will you be happier or less happy than you are today? I ask my graduate students—average age, late 20s—this question every year. The majority think they will be happier. But when I ask about their prediction for 50 years from now, it seems a lot less rosy. Being in their late 70s doesn’t sound so great to most of them.
They are shocked when I show them the data on what happens to most people: Happiness tends to decline throughout young adulthood and middle age, bottoming out at about age 50. After that, it heads back up again into one’s mid-60s. Then something strange happens. Older people split into two groups as they get old: those getting much happier, and those getting much unhappier.
Right around this same time of life, many people realize the importance of having made good financial decisions in their earlier decades. Those who planned ahead and saved up are more likely to be able to support themselves in comfort; many of those who didn’t, can’t.
Each of us has something like a “Happiness 401(k)” that we invest in when we are young, and that we get to enjoy when we are old. And just as financial planners advise their clients to engage in specific behaviors—make your saving automatic; think twice before buying that boat—we can all teach ourselves to do some very specific things at any age to make our last decades much, much happier.
In 1938, researchers at Harvard Medical School lit upon a visionary idea: They would sign up a bunch of men then studying at Harvard and follow them from youth to adulthood. Every year or two, researchers asked the participants about their lifestyles, habits, relationships, work, and happiness. The study has since expanded to include people beyond men who went to Harvard, and its results have been updated regularly for more than 80 years. Those results are a treasure trove (and I’ve referenced them several times in this column): You look at how people lived, loved, and worked in their 20s and 30s, and then you can see how their life turned out over the following decades. And from this crystal ball of happiness, you can learn how to invest in your own future well-being.
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As the participants in the Harvard Study of Adult Development have aged, researchers have categorized them with respect to happiness and health. There is a lot of variation in the population, but two distinct groups emerge at the extremes. The best off are the “happy-well,” who enjoy good physical health as well as good mental health and high life satisfaction. On the other end of the spectrum are the “sad-sick,” who are below average in physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
When they were young, the happy-well senior citizens tended to have accumulated certain resources and habits in their Happiness 401(k)s. Some of these are, like generational wealth, difficult for each of us to control: having a happy childhood, descending from long-lived ancestors, and avoiding clinical depression.
But some are, to varying degrees, under our control, and these can teach us a great deal about how to plan for late-life happy-wellness. Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships. Here’s what you can do about each of them today to make sure your accounts are as full as possible when you reach your later years:
- Don’t smoke—or if you already smoke, quit now. You might not succeed on your first try, but the earlier you start the quitting process, the more smoke-free years you can invest in your happiness account.
- Watch your drinking. Alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with smoking in the Harvard study, but plenty of other research shows that even by itself, it is one of the most powerful predictors of winding up sad-sick. If you have any indication of problem drinking in your life, get help now. If you have drinking problems in your family, do not take your chances: Keep that switch turned off. Although forgoing alcohol can be difficult, you’ll never be sorry you made this decision.
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and moderate serving sizes, but avoid yo-yo diets or intense restrictions that you can’t maintain over the long run.
- Prioritize movement in your life by scheduling time for it every day and sticking to it. Arguably the single best, time-tested way to do this is by walking daily.
- Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously—perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy—to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.
- Keep learning. More education leads to a more active mind in old age, and that means a longer, happier life. That doesn’t mean that you need to go to Harvard; you simply need to engage in lifelong, purposive learning. For example, that can mean reading serious nonfiction as part of a routine to learn more about new subjects.
- Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.
The best way to maximize your chances of happiness in your 70s is to pursue all seven of these goals with fervor, sort of like balancing your 401(k). But if you can choose only one to pour your heart into, let it be the last. According to the Harvard study, the single most important trait of happy-well elders is healthy relationships. As Robert Waldinger, who currently directs the study, told me in an email, “Well-being can be built—and the best building blocks are good, warm relationships.”
The seven funds of happiness are all based on population averages, which means, as they say in the commercials, your results may differ. Maybe, for example, you just can’t quit smoking. You won’t necessarily be doomed to misery in your 70s, but you’ll be better off if you can bolster your happiness through one of your other investments—say, by finding meaning and community in your faith.
If you want to ascend to that upper branch of happiness, following the seven steps as best you can is the most reliable way to do so. Take an inventory of your habits and behaviors today, and see where you need to invest a little more time, energy, or money to start moving in the right direction.
Everyone loves a happy ending, especially in the story of their own life. Start writing that ending today.