You know the situation, or at least you might remember it: as you’re just about to go out for the night, your parents are tucking themselves into bed. You look back and wonder how they could be content with spending the night watching Law & Order: SVU—how could they be happy with something so boring?
Social psychologists may have found the answer and it’s mostly a matter of perspective. While a night of partying and socializing can create happiness for the young, a night of television can be equally satisfying for older people. As a person ages, the things that make them happy change as well. To put it in psychological terms, humans experience a shift from “promotion motivation” to “prevention motivation.” When we’re younger, we look at things in terms of the reward they can provide. This causes us to evaluate our activities with questions like How can this social outing improve my social standing or sexual success? But when we age, happiness is found not through advancement, but stability. Older people derive happiness from calm consistency and trying to avoid things that might impact them negatively.
The Atlantic has more to say on the matter:
Research from Northwestern University in the journal Psychology and Aging suggests that promotion-mindedness is most prevalent among the young, because youth is a time for focusing on your hopes for the future, what you ideally want to do—you don’t have much in the way of responsibilities, and you still believe you can do anything you set your mind to. That and you think you are immortal. This is more or less a recipe for strong promotion motivation.
As we get older, illusions of immortality vanish. There is a mortgage that needs to be paid, a home that must be maintained, and children to be cared for.
Young people even use different language for the happiness they experience. “Excitement” and “elation” were more associated with the anticipated rewards of younger people, while the older participants used words such as “calm,” “relief,” and “peace.” In this way, both parties—young and old—are happy, but the happiness is achieved in different ways. Because our goals in life evolve, so too do our standards for happiness.
“How Happiness Changes With Age,” Heidi Grant Halvorson, The Atlantic