July 24, 2013 at 1:15 PM ET
If you think turning 40 will bum you out, just wait until you hit your mid-50s—that’s when regrets over unrealized goals really kick in.
But don’t worry, some of your happiest years are still ahead of you. According to a new study at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, there’s not one, but two times in our lives when we’re at the height of joy and satisfaction. One is already likely behind you, but the other is still a ways off on the horizon.
Remember those years just out of college, when you were 23 and still shiny-eyed and optimistic about all of the wondrous possibilities that lay ahead of you? That, say researchers, is one of our most contented and gratified times. Funny, because I’ve been reliving my so-called glory days via Girls lately, and Hannah Horvath and her cronies remind me of just how troubled and backwards my life was back then. I guess the only difference is I didn’t have enough self-awareness and maturity to realize just how many bad decisions I was making. But you know what they say: Ignorance is bliss.
According to the study, which involved 23,161 people between the ages of 17 and 85, we’re terrible at predicting how fulfilled we’ll be in the future. People in their early 20s overestimate their future happiness by an average of 10 percent, until life’s disappointments slowly rub away their bright-eyed enthusiasm and bring expectations down to realistic sizes.
You would think this adjustment would lead to happier times. After all, you know what’s ahead of you and how hard you’ll have to work to get there; you understand yourself better and aren’t as tortured by things like fitting in and feeling normal; you’re well on your way up the career ladder, with Xeroxing and coffee runs a faded memory. You may even have found your life partner and settled into a more comfortable and better-paid existence.
But, say the researchers, none of this seems to amount to much of anything in the grand scheme of our happiness, because we don’t hit our second pinnacle of satisfaction until we’re—gulp—69! So much for the things that are supposed to matter the most in life, like career, marriage and family. What really brings us peace of mind and contentment is when we can settle into retirement and spend our days sipping iced tea, playing tennis and going on bus tours of Europe with our neighbors. Evidently it's in those years when we no longer face regret or disappointment.
According to the Daily Mail, this isn’t the first study to come to these findings. Happiness follows a U-shaped curve, peaking in our early 20s and after retirement.
Well, to all you young whippersnappers still in your heyday of hopefulness—and even to those of us in those sad, depressing years in between—there’s a little lesson that will hopefully buoy you in the dark decades of your 30s, 40s and 50s: Try not to bother yourself with regrets. Go after what you want, even if it seems ridiculous and whatever the outcome, be happy that you tried. Research shows that we have more regrets over the opportunities we never sought out than the ones we tried for and failed at. So when your mom tells you not to quit your day job to join the circus, maybe she's just isn’t feeling so hot about the choices she made in her own life. And eating fire and taming tigers is probably going to be a lot more fulfilling than crunching numbers all day for a big, fat paycheck. But what do I know? I’m just a grumpy 39-year-old with three decades of disappointments ahead of her.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.