At almost every stage of life, there’s something to look forward to: moving out on your own, falling in love, getting married, owning a home, or even having a baby. Even from a professional perspective, many of us look ahead to the next raise, big promotion, and maybe even the big office around the corner.
But if we spend so much time looking to the future for our happiness, is it possible that we’re missing some of the best moments now?
For a closer look at what makes us truly happy, we surveyed over 1,000 people about the best times of their lives. Read on to see the ages at which people report being the happiest, how major milestones differ for men and women, and when people expect their happiness to peak.
You probably know the signs: an ear-to-ear grin, a spring in your step, or an overwhelming sensation of gratitude or elation. There’s a bit of science behind happiness, but we typically think of moments when we accomplished a goal, spent time with a loved one, or even just woke up on the right side of the bed.
However, instead of just looking ahead to the happiest times of your life, you may want to reflect on what you’ve already enjoyed. Of the more than 1,000 people surveyed, ranging in age from 19 to 73, the happiest age was 27, on average. While women identified being slightly older (28) when they experienced their happiest moments, men were 26 at the time.
Millennials were also the most likely to identify their early 20s as the happiest time of their life. Compared to 48% of millennials who felt most content in their 20s, 12% identified feeling happiest in their 30s. In contrast, Gen Xers identified being their happiest at 28, and baby boomers were happiest at 34.
For 22% of people overall and 30% of women, the birth of a child was the milestone that most contributed to their greatest happiness – around 17 percentage points more so than men. In fact, becoming a parent is often considered one of the single most significant physical and emotional moments in a woman’s life. But while women identified the birth of a child as the most monumental milestone, men felt more strongly about falling in love.
The milestones that contribute to our happiest times rely significantly, and understandably, on our stage of life. It is not surprising, therefore, that respondents who remember their childhood most fondly attribute that happiness to milestones such as getting a pet and developing meaningful friendships.
If you can remember being a teenager, then it should come as no surprise that almost a third of those who said their teenage years were the happiest indicated falling in love as the primary cause. As for respondents who pointed to their 20s and older as the most joyous, they all agreed that nothing enhanced their life more than the birth of a child.
There’s nothing wrong with looking ahead. Whether it’s thinking about a career change, buying a house, or starting a family, setting goals is a healthy way to think about your happiness. Of course, spending too much time fantasizing about what your life could be and not enjoying the moment can make finding joy more difficult.
On average, men and women believed they would reach peak happiness at age 47. While millennials considered 38 as the year of peak happiness, Gen Xers pointed to age 53, and baby boomers believed their greatest joy would come at 64 years of age.
Of the over 15% of people who didn’t believe they would experience another peak happiness moment, this sentiment was highest among baby boomers (31%) and Gen Xers (16%).
With so many happy milestones occurring at a relatively young age, we asked people which future milestones they anticipated would contribute to their happiest moments.
For nearly 18% of people, retirement was expected to be the most influential milestone in terms of creating happiness, followed by paying off debt (nearly 9%), having grandchildren (almost 8%), and getting married (7%). Both Gen Xers (24%) and baby boomers (about 32%) had their eye on retirement as they looked ahead for happiness, followed by paying off debt for Gen Xers and having grandchildren for baby boomers.
In contrast, more than 1 in 10 millennials looked forward to getting married, followed by falling in love and having a child (9% each). Even if retirement doesn’t come easy, 8% of millennials expected to feel the happiest after they retired, more than achieving their own financial independence.
Find Your Bliss
At the end of the day, no one can define your happiness. While there were shared milestones – the joy of becoming a parent, falling in love, getting married, and retiring – not everyone anticipated them at the same time. If nothing else, instead of looking forward at what you have left to accomplish, living in the moment and enjoying the present may be your best bet for enjoying life.
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For this project, we surveyed 1,017 total respondents. We asked them to identify their happiest age. We also asked them at what age they thought they would be happiest in the future. We asked them questions about which milestone events in their life led to their happiest age, and which milestone they believed would one day lead to their happiest age.
Respondents ranged in age from 19 to 73 with an average age of 40 and a standard deviation of 12.5. 174 respondents were baby boomers, 357 were Gen Xers, and 486 were millennials. Forty-five percent of respondents identified as men, and 55% identified as women.
Our data rely on self-reporting by the respondents using a survey, and this project is an exploratory look at when people felt the happiest. No statistical testing was performed. The data are not weighted. Limitations with survey data include telescoping, exaggeration, and selective memory.
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