In Search of a Satisfying Life–Past, Present, and Future
How much has your life changed over the past 10 years? And how much do you think it will change over the next 10 years? One of my students and I recently conducted some research that provided fascinating insights into how people believe their lives are unfolding over time. Perhaps most interesting was the fact that their beliefs were often not accurate. Are yours?
Beliefs concerning how life is supposed to unfold over time are widespread. Many of these beliefs involve the timing and order of major life events and milestones—such as graduating from school, getting married, and finding a career—as well as changes in our personalities and character traits over time. Such beliefs also cover how satisfying and enjoyable our lives are expected to be—from the past, to the present, and into the future.
Age plays an important role in shaping these beliefs. Early adulthood is usually seen as the period when life gets better and better. Indeed, it’s easy to think of ways in which younger adults experience growth and gains, for example in their education, friends, skills, and other resources. In contrast, older adulthood is thought to be the stage of life when things generally get worse. It’s not hard to think of ways in which adults experience declines into old age, for example in their physical abilities, mental skills, and the size of their friendship circles.
But do such beliefs really reflect how our lives unfold over time? Do these beliefs correctly convey how satisfying our lives were in the past and will be in the future? To answer this question, we examined responses from several thousand American adults who participated in the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. These adults were surveyed at three time points across 20 years, and at each time point, participants rated their past life (10 years ago), current life, and future life (10 years from now) from “worst life possible” to “best life possible.”
Our results showed that current life satisfaction does not consistently improve during younger adulthood, and it does not consistently decline during older age. That’s right: people were not consistently more satisfied with life when they were younger rather than when they were older. Instead, regardless of their age, some people’s life satisfaction improves, other people experience some decline, and others are stable over time. In general, then, life does not get more and more satisfying during younger adulthood, and it does not tend to get less and less satisfying during old age.
So our assumptions about how life tends to unfold are generally inaccurate, and such biases tend to be related to our age. Many younger and middle-aged adults are too negative when they look to the past. They incorrectly recall their lives from 10 years ago as being less satisfying than their present lives. Many are also overly positive when they look to the future. They mistakenly believe that their lives 10 years from now will be more satisfying than their present lives.
An interesting twist is that older adults tend to have a fairly accurate view of their past lives. Rather than being too negative or positive, older people tend to correctly view their lives from 10 years ago as having been just as satisfying as their lives at present. Yet older adults are often overly negative when they look to the future. They erroneously believe that their lives 10 years in the future will be less satisfying than their present lives when, in fact, satisfaction does not actually decline on average.
These insights are important because people often base their major life decisions on who they hope to become or the kind of lives they envision for themselves in the future. Understanding how people believe their lives unfold over time—from the past, to the present, and into the future—is valuable because such beliefs can matter to our planning and decision-making.
So, it’s time for a new story about our lives. In a nutshell, many of us mistakenly believe that the quality of our lives has changed from the past, and we expect that it will change into the future. But such beliefs do not necessarily reflect our actual life experiences. This may be disappointing news for younger adults, many of whom envision a much-improved future version of their current lives. But this should be welcome news for older adults—and for younger adults who someday will become older adults—who often mistakenly envision a less satisfying future life. Perhaps it’s time to start telling ourselves a different story about our lives.
For Further Reading
Harris, H., & Busseri, M. A. (2019). Is there an end of history illusion for life satisfaction? Evidence from a three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Research in Personality (in press).
Quoidbach, J., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2013). The end of history illusion. Science, 339, 96-98.
Shanahan, E., & Busseri, M. A. (2019). A systematic review of the relationship between perceived life script event age and valence across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 117, 674-695.
Michael A. Busseri, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Brock University (St. Catharines Ontario, Canada). His research and teaching interests include subjective well-being, temporal self-evaluations, and multivariate statistics.