What It Means To Be Happy Changes As Employees Age

I am nearly 40 years old. I spent last Saturday night at home, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, rereading a favorite novel and listening to the sounds of my husband and children playing video games in the next room. It was wonderful.

If you could have talked to my 20 year-old self, and described this evening that awaited her 20 years into her future, she would be have been utterly devastated to learn that her life turned out to be so ... . boring. That a Saturday night spent reading a book—not even a new book—would qualify as great time. "What the hell happens to me?" she would wonder.

The answer, of course, is that she grows up. Along the way, what it means to be "happy" slowly evolves into something completely different from her youthful idea of happiness. And she is not alone.

In a recent set of studies, psychologists Cassie Mogliner, Sepandar Kamvar, and Jennifer Aaker looked at how people's experience of happiness changes with age. They examined twelve million personal blogs, to see what kinds of emotions the bloggers mentioned when they talked about feeling "happy."

They found that younger bloggers described experiences of happiness as being times when they felt excited, ecstatic, or elated. (20-year old Heidi, and your younger employees, would completely agree. Happiness for the young is all about anticipating the joys of new accomplishments—finding love, getting ahead at work, and buying your first home).

Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved. As we grow older, we find that happiness becomes more and more about fulfilling your responsibilities well and hanging on to what you've already got—working things out with your spouse, staying healthy, and being able to make your mortgage payments.

The researchers argue that this change from seeking excitement to seeking peacefulness has to do with being becoming increasingly focused on the present, as opposed to the future. Because younger people feel they have their whole lives ahead of them, they seek novelty and feel capable of anything. When time feels more limited, we focus instead on seeking contentment in our current circumstances.

Another way to think of this change is as a gradual shifting from the promotion mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of what you can gain) to the prevention mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of avoiding loss.) In a previous Fast Company post, and in my new book Succeed, I've described how these two ways of looking at your goals create different motivations, and lead to very different strengths and weaknesses (e.g., creativity, innovation, speed, and embracing risk vs. thoroughness, accuracy, persistence, and careful planning).

If you want to understand how to best motivate your employees, both young and old, it's essential to keep these differences in mind. Younger people are more promotion-minded, and are drawn to opportunity (though their eagerness can sometimes to lead recklessness). They are more likely to value the possibility for growth, advancement, and creative expression at least as much as their monetary compensation.

More prevention-minded older employees, on the other hand, are looking for a safe bet. They're highly motivated to perform well, avoid mistakes, and will work hard to protect what they've earned. Expect them to think more about their job security, and to care more about having the tools in place to enable them to do the work right.

For more on motivating your employees, or yourself, check out Heidi's new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow Heidi on Twitter @hghalvorson

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  • Steve Giglio

    Author's points are essential to respecting executives on your team and understanding what generally motivates them.

    As an Executive Development coach, I've found to direct someone you must understand what's dear to them, what's at stake for them, and what mark is important they make on their work. Making time to understand these issues communicates volumes with regard to your desire to shape their behavior to achieve these goals.

    Steve Giglio

  • Dale

    I would have to agree with with previous comment regarding generalities. While there are some experiences that have already been experienced by older workers (e.g. first house bought), there are others mentioned that depend on other socioeconomic demographics. For example, comparing single verses married and family may reflect happiness goals that would break down. Being 52 and divorced for 4 years with kids grown and on their own, their are things I derive happiness from that are similar to when I was in my early 20's. I believe some of the aspects would be worth inspection or understanding, but when it comes to a worker's happiness I believe it is more advantageous to "know your workers." This was something that was more beneficial to me when I was a supervisor and leader for 20 years in the Air Force. Generalities may give me a baseline, but I would never stereotype a worker by age without doing something very simple -- communicate and ask them. While I have not seen original research, I would also be suspect of applying even generalities to a sample of bloggers-- this would appear more a qualitative endeavor which is more conducive to gathering data for potential quantitative research which is where more reliable correlations can be made.

  • midwest norwegian

    Honestly, this article is so full of vapid generalities its incredible. Most of the older people I work with are blazing a trail daily. They embrace "change", they measure and mitigate "risks" and they are constantly renewing themselves. Successful people of EVERY age will exhibit leadership in these ways as well as in others.

  • jasmine

    Wow, this sounds like a huge overgeneralisation and highly problematic thesis - hardly one to base decisions for your business on (or elsewhere).

    To me, it just sounds depressing to think that happiness comes from being able to pay the mortgage. Surely that's just a prerequisite for being able to then do the things that make you happy.

    Maybe what you mean is not that the things that make people happy change, but that priorities change. Some people may find contentment when they successfully align their priorities, but others may not.