You’re probably way too optimistic about your future happiness

We never see the bad stuff coming.
We never see the bad stuff coming.
Image: Reuters/Laszlo Balogh
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How optimistic are you about the future? To find out, take this two-part quiz:

  1. Imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you; the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally stand at this time?
  2. Which step on the ladder do you think you’ll be at in five years?

If you are like the majority of people, the number you picked for the second question is higher than the second. And according to recently released research (pdf) from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, you are probably going to be disappointed by your own future—particularly if you are young.

Deaton’s research, published as a working paper with the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines how people across the world of different ages answer the questions above. The analysis is based on data collected on 1.7 million individuals across 166 countries from 2006 to 2016 for the Gallup World Poll. One of Deaton’s primary findings is that people are weirdly hopeful.

“I find a worldwide optimism about the future,” writes Deaton. “[I]n spite of repeated evidence to the contrary, people consistently but irrationally predict they will be better off five years from now.” This pattern of overoptimism holds across all regions of the world.

The following chart shows average self-reported well-being for different age groups. When you ask people between the ages of 15-24 years old to rate their well-being at present, the average score is 5.5. But when you ask them about their expected well-being in five years, the average score is 7.2.

Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be correct. With an average score of 5.3, people between 25-34 years old are even less happy than 15-24 year olds.

Deaton acknowledges that one problem with his analysis is that this data just represents a snapshot in time. Maybe young people over the last decade are right, and their lives will be better than people who are now five years older than them.

This is unlikely, however. The economist Hannes Schwandt analyzed the responses of Germans who predicted their happiness in five years, and then received follow-up questions about their life satisfaction five years later. He found that these people greatly overestimated their future happiness (pdf).

So why are our expectations for our future selves so off-base?

Deaton thinks that one possibility is this overoptimism is biologically built into human beings. We need to believe that the future is going to be better than today, or else we wouldn’t be as motivated to survive. “Optimism bias may be part of the normal healthy brain,” he writes. He also thinks that when people are asked about the future, they tend to focus on what could get better in their lives rather than what could get worse. We think about our future fancy apartment and our perfect imaginary partner, not about the strain of debt and our possible divorce.

Deaton and Schwante both find that as we get older, our delusions about our future happiness decrease. Unlike over-optimistic 20-somethings, people in their 50s are only slightly too optimistic about their futures. It seems that as we get older, we come to grips with the fact that the future is probably going to look a lot like the present.