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HEATHER P. LACEY, DYLAN M. SMITH and PETER A. UBEL
HOPE I DIE BEFORE I GET OLD: MISPREDICTING
HAPPINESS ACROSS THE ADULT LIFESPAN
ABSTRACT. The tendency to overestimate the inﬂuence of circumstances on
well-being has been demonstrated for a range of life events, but the perceived
impact of aging on well-being has been largely overlooked. People seem to
dread growing old, despite evidence that well-being improves with age. We
compared the self-reported happiness of younger adults (mean age=31) and
older adults (mean age=68) with their estimates of happiness at diﬀerent ages.
Self-reports conﬁrmed increasing happiness with age, yet both younger and
older participants believed that happiness declines. Both groups estimated
declining happiness for the average person, but only older adults estimated this
decline for themselves.
KEY WORDS: aging, well-being, aﬀective forecasting.
‘‘Things they do look awful cold,
I hope I die before I get old.’’
Pete Townshend, age 20, guitarist and songwriter, lyrics to My Generation.
Considerable research shows that people become happier as
they age, experiencing decreasing negative affect, increasing or
stable positive affect, and increasing life-satisfaction into the 8th
decade (Carstensen et al., 2000; Charles et al., 2001; Costa
et al., 1987; Diener and Suh, 1997; Gross et al., 1997; Kunz-
mann et al., 2000; Mroczek and Kolarz, 1998; Stacey and Gatz,
1991). However, people may not appreciate the joys that come
with aging. At age 20, for example, rock musician Pete Towns-
hend was inspired to write that it would be better to die than
Townshend may not have been alone in imagining that hap-
piness declines with age. When imagining old age, people might
consider the objective decline in physical functioning and health
that will accompany aging, and predict that old age will be less
enjoyable than early adulthood. Such thinking can result in an
‘‘impact bias:’’ a tendency to overestimate how much speciﬁc
Journal of Happiness Studies (2006) 7: 167–182 ÓSpringer 2006
circumstances will impact their well-being. For example, non-
patients predict substantial declines in well-being for serious
health conditions, yet many patients report little or no decline
(Lacey et al., 2005; Riis et al., 2005; Ubel et al., 2005). People
expect long term shifts in happiness because of romantic rela-
tionships, career advancement, electoral results, and even foot-
ball game outcomes, yet baseline mood returns relatively
quickly after these events (Gilbert et al., 1998; Wilson et al.,
If young adults predict declining happiness with age, they
may not be alone in that belief. In addition to biasing young
adults’ predictions, implicit theories of declining happiness
could also cause retrospective errors in older adults’ happiness
judgments. Ross (1989) has demonstrated that people often
reconstruct previous states inaccurately to match their beliefs
about what must have been true before. Though older adults
have the experience to counter negative aging beliefs, they
may rely on implicit theories about happiness across the life-
span, rather than accurate recollections of their own happi-
ness. Implicit theories of declining happiness may cause
younger adults to mispredict less happiness in old age, and
cause older adults to misremember greater happiness in their
Though impact biases have been studied for a range of
potential circumstances, there has been little or no examina-
tion of how people expect happiness to change with age. This
is surprising because unlike disabling diseases that affect por-
tions of the population, aging affects everyone. Beliefs about
aging are important—if younger adults mispredict old age as
miserable, they may make risky decisions, not worrying about
preserving themselves for what they predict will be an un-
happy future. Conversely, exaggerating the joys of youth may
lead to unwarranted nostalgia in older adults, interfering with
their appreciation of current joys. Mistaken beliefs about the
misery of aging may also reinforce stereotypes of miserable
old codgers and carefree youths, driving a wedge between the
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
In this study, we asked older and younger adults to report
their own current happiness, and to estimate happiness at ages
30 and 70, both for themselves and for the average person. We
make several predictions about happiness self-reports and hap-
piness beliefs. First, based on previous research, we predict that
older adults will report greater current happiness than younger
adults. Second, in contrast to self-reports, we predict that par-
ticipants will believe that happiness decreases with age. We ex-
pect to ﬁnd this misprediction among both older and younger
participants. However, we expect older participants to predict
less decline, because most should have experienced stable or
increasing well-being over time. Even if older adults rely pri-
marily on implicit theories of decline, their experiences may
temper the inﬂuence of these theories. Third, we hypothesize
that pessimistic beliefs should have greater inﬂuence on partici-
pant’s happiness estimates for the average person than for
themselves. Because people typically rate themselves above aver-
age in most abilities and traits (Alicke, 1985; Brown, 1986), we
expect participants to predict steeper decline in happiness for
others than for themselves.
Participants were drawn from a panel of internet users who
agreed to participate in research surveys. This panel, adminis-
tered by Survey Sample International, includes over 1 million
unique member households recruited through random digit dial-
ing, banner ads, and other ‘‘permission-based’’ techniques. (For
more information, see http://www.surveysampling.com/ssi_
home.html). Individuals completing our web-based survey were
entered into a drawing for a cash prize of up to $1000. Email
invitations were sent to a sample of panel members stratiﬁed to
mirror the U.S. census population based on gender, education
level, and income. We also stratiﬁed the sample by race/ethnic-
ity to ensure that the ﬁnal set of survey participants would
include at least 10% self-identifying as African-American and
10% self-identifying as Hispanic. Finally, the sample was
MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 169
stratiﬁed to obtain approximately 50% aged 40 years or youn-
ger, and 50% aged 60 years or older.
The ﬁnal sample included 273 participants in the younger
group, ranging in age from 21 to 40 (M=30.64, SD=6.12), and
269 participants in the older group, ranging in age from 60 to 86
(M=68.48, SD=5.27). Women constituted 49% of the younger
group and 53% of the older group v
(1, N=476) = 0.85,
p=0.36. Ethnic minorities constituted 35% of the younger
group and 24% of the older group, v
(1, N=474) = 8.13,
Participants received a recruiting email inviting them to partici-
pate in the survey. The email identiﬁed University of Michigan
as the source of the survey, indicated that the survey would ask
for opinions about quality of life at different ages, and that par-
ticipants would be eligible for the cash prize. Those choosing to
participate could follow a link from the email to the survey
The initial survey screen informed participants that they
would be asked about their own current happiness and to imag-
ine happiness at ages 30 and 70. All participants ﬁrst rated their
Variants of rating order for questionnaire
Rating Order 1 Order 2 Order 3 Order 4
1 Self-current Avg. person-
2 Avg. person-
3 Self-age 30 Self-age 70 Avg. person-
4 Avg. person-
Self-age 30 Self-age 70
5 Self-age 70 Self-age 30 Avg. person-
6 Avg. person-
Self-age 70 Self-age 30
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
current happiness and the happiness of the average person their
own age using Fordyce’s (1988) 0 to 10 scale. Participants then
used the same scale to estimate happiness for themselves and
for the average person at ages 30 and 70. We randomly
assigned participants to one of four question orders, outlined in
Table I. All participants rated their own age ﬁrst, but order
assignment determined whether participants then rated age 30
before age 70, or vice versa, and whether participants rated
themselves before rating the average person for each age, or
Happiness estimates were analyzed using an Analysis of Vari-
ance (ANOVA) with two repeated-measures variables (rated age
and self/other) and one between-subjects variable (participant
Does Happiness Increase with Age?
As expected, self-reports of current happiness were higher
for older participants than for younger participants
age 30 age 70
self-reported current happiness
estimated happiness for avg person - younger group
estimated happiness for avg person - older group
Figure 1. Current happiness self-reports versus happiness estimates for the
average person, for ages 30 and 70.
MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 171
F(1, 517)=13.42, p<0.001, g
=0.03 (see Figure 1), conﬁrming
previous research demonstrating stable or increasing well-being
across the adult lifespan.
Do People Mispredict how Happiness Changes over Time?
As predicted, participants’ beliefs about happiness and aging con-
ﬂicted with happiness self-reports (See Figure 1). Participants esti-
mated more happiness for the average 30-year-old than for the
average 70-year-old, F(1, 507) = 122.34, p<0.001, g
predicted that younger adults would estimate steeper decline than
older adults, but we actually found the reverse. The interaction of
rated age and participant age was signiﬁcant but quite small in
magnitude, F(1, 505) = 6.83, p<0.009, g
= 0.01, and both
younger, t(260) = 6.32, p< 0.001, and older, t(247) = 9.37, p<
0.001, participants estimated signiﬁcant decline with age.
Do Beliefs about Aging Inﬂuence Happiness Estimates
for the Self?
We expected participants to estimate steeper decline in happi-
ness for the average person than for themselves. A signiﬁcant
interaction of self/other by rated age conﬁrms this prediction
F(1, 505)=36.67, p<0.001, g
=0.07. More speciﬁcally, older
age 30 age 70 age 30 age 70
younger group older group
estimated happiness for self
estimated happiness for avg person
Figure 2. Happiness estimates for the self and for the average person at ages
30 and 70.
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
adults estimated declining happiness for themselves and for oth-
ers, with steeper decline for others, F(1, 246)=17.07, p<0.001,
g=0.07, but younger adults actually predicted declining happi-
ness only for others t(260)=6.32, p<0.001, and predicted no
decline at all for themselves, t(259)=0.81, p=0.42. Figure 2.
Do Men and Women have different Beliefs about Aging
Because men and women experience old age differently, they
may have different beliefs and expectations about aging. For
example, men have a shorter life expectancy than women, and
may consequently imagine earlier or harsher declines in health
in the years approaching death, leading to more pessimistic
views of old age. To test for gender differences, we introduced
gender as an additional between-subjects variable in a second
analysis of happiness estimates.
For the most part, there were no gender differences among
the effects discussed above. Both among men, F(1, 228)=11.73,
=0.05, and among women, F(1, 242)=5.06,
=0.02, current self-reported happiness was higher
for older participants. Both men, F(1, 228)=52.96, p<0.001,
younger group older group younger group older group
estimated happiness for self
estimated happiness for avg person
Figure 3. Happiness estimates for the self and for the average person for
male and female participants.
MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 173
=0.19, and women, F(1, 242)=65.37, p<0.001, g
nevertheless believed that happiness declines with age for the
The only signiﬁcant effect of gender was an interaction
of participant gender, participant age, and self/other,
F(1, 470)=4.58, p=0.03, g
=0.01 (see Figure 3). Both
men, F(1, 228)=26.00, p<0.001, g
=0.10, and women, F(1,
242)=12.64, p<0.001, g
=0.05, estimated greater happiness for
themselves than for the average person, but this self-other dif-
ference was signiﬁcantly larger for older men than for younger
men, F(1, 228)=10.82, p<0.001, g
=0.05, whereas for women,
the self-other diﬀerence was consistent across age groups, F(1,
242)=0.17, p=0.69, g
=0.001. One possible explanation for
this diﬀerence is that men and women may face diﬀerent con-
cerns about health and mortality as they age. The standard of
comparison for older men may be a pessimistic one, such that
older men consider themselves particularly lucky to have sur-
vived so long, an issue that is less salient for younger men or
for women. This explanation is speculative at this stage, and fu-
ture research should further explore this gender diﬀerence.
In summary, we found that both younger and older adults
mispredicted changes in happiness with age. Both groups esti-
mated declining happiness from age 30 to age 70 for the aver-
age person. However, younger adults did not apply this belief
to themselves, predicting no decline in their own happiness,
while older adults did apply the belief to themselves, estimating
greater happiness in the past, despite experiences to the con-
trary. Men and women had generally similar perceptions of
happiness at different ages, though older men estimated a larger
difference between themselves and the average person than did
younger men, whereas the self-other difference was equivalent
across age groups for women.
Consistent with previous studies, older participants in our study
were happier, on average, than younger participants. Yet
participants believed the opposite with both younger and older
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
participants mistakenly predicting that the average 30-year-old
is happier than the average 70-year-old.
We expected that younger adults would predict steeper
decline in happiness than older adults because their estimates
would necessarily rely on theories about aging, whereas older
adults can also draw on actual experience. Contrary to this
hypothesis, older adults actually predicted a slightly steeper
decline than did younger adults. In fact, despite additional expe-
rience across the lifespan, older adults may have relied on theo-
ries of declining happiness not only to describe other people’s
happiness, but also to describe their own. Older adults estimated
their own previous happiness as signiﬁcantly higher than the
current self-reported happiness of younger adults. This is consis-
tent with evidence that people reconstruct past states based on
implicit theories about change and stability (Ross, 1989).
While older participants apparently relied on theories of declin-
ing happiness to estimate their own happiness, younger partici-
pants did not. Instead, younger adults predicted declining
happiness only for the average person and did not apply this pre-
diction to themselves. We expected a self-serving bias, such that all
participants would predict steeper decline for others than for them-
selves, but we were surprised to ﬁnd younger adults exempting
themselves so completely from the fate they predicted for others.
Taylor and Brown (1988) have argued that self-enhancing beliefs
serve a protective purpose, promoting mental health; in this case,
self-enhancement worked not by distorting reality, but by correct-
ing mistaken beliefs, ironically bringing estimates closer to reality.
The reason for the different patterns observed for older ver-
sus younger participants could also be due to the different way
the task was structured for each group; younger participants
predicted their future happiness level, while older people recalled
their past happiness. Remembering greater happiness in the past
may be less threatening than forecasting a decline in one’s own
happiness in the future. Thus, it could be that while both
groups believe that happiness generally declines with age, youn-
ger people were more hesitant to apply this belief to themselves.
In making sense of our results, we address three methodolog-
ical concerns. First, we use the current self-reported happiness
MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 175
of younger participants as a proxy for the happiness that older
participants experienced at age 30, but it is possible that older
participants were truly happier at 30 than younger participants
are now. Without longitudinal data, we cannot absolutely rule
out the possibility that older participants really become less
happy over time, leaving their estimates accurate and unbiased.
However, prior longitudinal studies have demonstrated stability
in well-being measures through most of adulthood, with small
declines only among the oldest old (Charles et al., 2001; Costa,
et al., 1987; Kunzmann et al., 2000; Stacey and Gatz, 1991).
Stable or increasing well-being has also been demonstrated in
cross-sectional studies from diﬀerent decades, sampling from
diﬀerent cohorts than those sampled here (e.g., Cantril, 1965;
Larson, 1978). The evidence generally indicates increasing well-
being, suggesting that the increasing happiness we observe in
this cross-section is not a cohort eﬀect.
Second, although we recruited participants to reﬂect the US
census in terms of gender, ethnicity, and education level, it is
possible that our sample differs from the broader population
because they were recruited via the internet. More speciﬁcally, it
is possible that older adults choosing to participate may differ
from younger adults choosing to participate. Participation may
reﬂect greater vitality among older adults, but not necessarily
among younger adults. However, the potential for age differ-
ences in self-selection is an inherent limitation of survey re-
search, even with more traditional response modes and
recruitment methods. The age difference in happiness we found
is consistent with the age difference found in previous studies,
suggesting that our internet sample was not unusual.
Third, by contrasting happiness beliefs with happiness self-
reports, we assume that self-reports are appropriate standards
for judging the accuracy of beliefs, but it is possible that youn-
ger and older participants use different comparison standards
when evaluating their own happiness, making it difﬁcult to
compare the ratings of younger and older participants. In fact,
Ubel et al. (2005) recently demonstrated that participants spon-
taneously use ‘‘others my own age’’ as a standard when rating
their own health, rather than comparing themselves to the
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
broader population, thereby elevating the health ratings of older
participants. However, when participants were given a speciﬁc
age to use as a comparison standard, participants of different
ages apparently adjusted their ratings to account for the com-
mon standard. We gave our participants a common standard by
informing them in advance that they would be evaluating multi-
ple ages, cuing them to make ratings based on the range of pos-
sible circumstances across the adult lifespan and not just for
people their own age. Despite our efforts to equate comparison
standards across age groups, this and all research comparing
subjective ratings remains vulnerable to the possibility that par-
ticipants calibrate their responses differently. This potential
problem points to the continuing need for development of mea-
surements of happiness that are not subject to recalibration.
Despite the mounting evidence that happiness does not
decline with age, some may view this effect with understandable
skepticism. After all, old age is associated with real deterioration
of circumstances, including failing health and diminishing ﬁnan-
cial resources, as well as the onset of widowhood and other
social losses (Diener and Suh, 1997). The fact that happiness
does not suﬀer from these objective declines is counterintuitive
enough that researchers often describe this as the ‘‘well-being
paradox.’’ So the question remains, given the diﬃculties of old
age, why don’t people become less happy as they get older?
Several theories suggest that increasing happiness over the
adult years may result from emotional changes speciﬁcally asso-
ciated with the aging process. Lawton (1989) suggested that old-
er adults regulate emotional experience by proactively altering
environments to maximize positive aﬀect. Labouvie-Vief and
colleagues (Labouvie-Vief and Blanchard-Fields, 1982; Labou-
vie-Vief and DeVoe, 1991; Labouvie-Vief et al., 1989) have
argued that aﬀect and cognition become better integrated over
the lifespan, allowing more eﬀective strategies for emotion regu-
lation. Cheng (2004) argued that older adults maximize positive
aﬀect and minimize negative aﬀect by reducing the discrepancies
between current states and goal states, either by lowering goal
standards, or by shifting goals away from unmanageable areas
and toward manageable ones. More speciﬁcally, Carstensen and
MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 177
colleagues (Carstensen, 1991, 1995; Carstensen et al., 1999;
Carstensen and Turk-Charles, 1994) argue that awareness of the
passing of time and anticipation of the end of life may motivate
older adults to shift away from knowledge acquisition goals and
toward socioemotional goals. To the extent that these strategies
are unconscious, even older adults may fail to recognize their
protective qualities for happiness.
In addition to emotional strategies speciﬁc to aging, there is
evidence to suggest that happiness and well-being show surpris-
ingly little long-term change in response to circumstances more
generally, even dramatic life-changing events such as winning
the lottery or becoming conﬁned to a wheelchair (Brickman
et al., 1978). Several theories have proposed adaptation
mechanisms that may lessen the emotional impact of events and
maintain relatively stable well-being over time (Brickman
and Campbell, 1971; Gilbert et al., 1998; Helson, 1964; Wilson
and Gilbert, 2003).
Our understanding of adaptation may beneﬁt further from
research on well-being across the lifespan. As we learn more
about socioemotional strategies and other mechanisms that pro-
mote happiness in old age, we may gain insight into the mecha-
nisms that allow people of all ages to deal with adverse
circumstances. If, as Carstensen and her colleagues have sug-
gested, a foreshortened perception of the future helps older
adults reprioritize and focus on social and emotional goals, a
health scare may do the same at any age. Adversity may help
shape our goals, redirecting us away from what we can’t do and
helping us to value what we can. Like aging, perhaps misfor-
tunes such as illness, professional setbacks, and romantic heart-
breaks help us to reassess our priorities and set more
meaningful or attainable goals.
People are remarkable in their ability to adapt to circum-
stances, both good and bad, but they are perhaps equally
remarkable in their inability to recognize their own adaptation.
Just as our participants believed that happiness suffers in old
age, people have been shown to overestimate the emotional
impact of a wide range of circumstances, apparently unaware of
their own ability to cope. These mispredictions may sometimes
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.
result in suboptimal behavior in the quest for happiness, moti-
vating unwarranted effort toward some outcomes and away
from others that will ultimately bring no change in happiness.
Nevertheless, it is possible that failure to anticipate adaptation
may actually be functional, or even necessary for adaptation to
occur (Wilson and Gilbert, 2003). If we count on our distress
being minimal or short-lived, we may ﬁnd it all the harder to
ignore whatever discomfort remains.
Having reached his 60th birthday, Pete Townshend frequently
writes on his website about how happy he is now, in contrast to
the lyrics composed in his youth. Our study suggests that he is
not unusual in being so happy, nor would he be unusual if he
occasionally reminisced about his youth, imagining that, back
then, he was even happier.
This work was funded by the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development (RO1HD40789). Heather P. Lacey is
funded by a HSR&D post-doctoral fellowship from the Depart-
ment of Veterans Affairs. Dylan M. Smith is supported by an
MREP early career development award from the Department of
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MISPREDICTING HAPPINESS ACROSS THE LIFESPAN 181
Address for correspondence:
HEATHER P. LACEY
Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine
VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, HSR&D
2215 Fuller Drive,
Ann Arbor, MI 48105
HEATHER P.LACEY ET AL.