What It Means To Be Happy Changes As Employees Age

If you want to understand how to best motivate your employees, both young and old, it’s essential to understand how our ideas about happiness change as we 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

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,
, 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
.) 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