Here's a quick, two-question quiz: When was your happiest time at work? And when will you hit the pinnacle of your career?
If you’re like most people, these questions took you in completely opposite chronological directions.
A recent survey done by LinkedIn and Citi found that, across generations, people thought their careers would peak in the near future, and their happiest days were in the recent past. Those under age 35 thought they’d hit their career peak at 43, but they were happiest at 28. Those aged 35-44 said they’d hit their career peak at 50 but were happiest at 35. The 45-54 year-old group thought they’d peak at 56 but were happiest at 42, and the 55-plus group planned to peak at 62, but looked back fondly at age 49.
This is a little odd if you think about it. Everyone could have thought their happiest years were in their 20s, or that they’d peak in their mid-50s, but instead, happiness and success appear to be moving targets. Why is that?
Our fondness for the recent past stems from this: "It’s a combination of nostalgia, and selective memory, perhaps," says Linda Descano, president and CEO of Citi’s Women & Co., and head of content and social for North America marketing.
Today we’re always in the nitty gritty. We don’t have distance. We don’t have perspective. Sometimes we focus on what we haven’t done. The glass is half-empty. But when you have some distance, it doesn’t seem too bad.
That’s why the past seems happier than today. And as for the recent past? "I don’t remember my 20s and 30s as clearly!" says Descano, who’s in her 50s. Happy memories require a certain level of detail, and the recent past can offer that in a way the distant past can't.
As for peak success always being in the future, here’s a positive spin on that: "People are still raising the bar for themselves," says Descano. In a world of constant reinvention, we always believe we have something new to contribute. There’s a certain restlessness in that, perhaps, though the upside is that we never view ourselves as out of the game.
Regardless, here’s the good news: Because happiness is a moving target, rather than an objective point in time, we can recognize that our perceived happiness is somewhat under our control.
Knowing that someday we will likely view now as our happiest time, we can learn to view it as happy while we’re in it, rather than solely in the rear view mirror. Key to that is a mindfulness of good things that are happening, and giving ourselves a break on everything else.
Descano recommends keeping a "brag book" of nice notes and positive events. "There are always some days that are difficult," she says. "But if you save these notes people wrote you and thanked you for something you did—these are ways to remind yourself that you do have something to offer."