When she was 20 years old, Kristen Wise’s five-year plan had her moving out of her parent’s house and working in the accounting field. Five years later and like many post-graduates today, she lives at home and is still working to make those goals reality.
“When you graduate high school you’re thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna get a great job after college, I’m gonna have a career,’ and then you get to college and you’re like, ‘I have to pay my bills,’” she said.
Wise’s level of optimism at age 20, mirrors findings of a study, published online Feb. 18 in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, reporting that younger adults often overestimate their futures and future satisfaction.
Frieder Lang, the study’s lead researcher, and colleagues explained, “pessimistic or realistic anticipations may help individuals to cope with anxiety or uncertainty, “ rather than those who view the glass as half full. Lang is also a professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany.
Pessimists protect themselves from disappointment through a defense mechanism called, “defensive pessimism,” where “one expects a failure or loss even when the likelihood of actually experiencing that failure or loss is unrealistically low,” Lang said.
By initially having lower standards, pessimists are ultimately more satisfied with life and may actually live longer. However, such mindset develops with age.
Those in middle and older adulthood may have lower expectations and are therefore more adept at handling disappointment, if any occurs at all.
Older adults seem to have a more modest view of the future. Contrarily, younger people may not account for life’s obstacles and reported being less satisfied in the study, Lang added.
Researchers conducted in-person interviews with people (aged groups 18-39, 40-64 and 65 years and older) who participated in the national German Socio-Economic Panel from 1993 to 2004. In five-year intervals, participants were asked to assess their current life satisfaction and how satisfied they thought they would be five years later.
The researchers found that as people age, so do their anticipations of the future. Those in midlife most accurately predicted their happiness after five years, however, the expectations of younger adults also declined.
Although Wise has successfully climbed the retail ladder— becoming an operations supervisor at Victoria Secret and an accounting intern at D’Andrea & Associates—she still rates her satisfaction with life as a 5 or a 6 on a scale of 10.
She said that a changing economy and unforgiving loan debt has impacted her success in reaching both career and personal goals.
“It’s so hard now because all I can think of is paying my student loans and getting out of debt, trying to make my life better. I didn’t expect the economy to go where it did. It’s definitely a bullet I had to bite,” she said.
But with age, disappointment happens. And Chicagoan Dale Freeman believes there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the problem and wanting more. To him, that’s the biggest difference between pessimists and optimists.
“When you’re plain happy and you don’t do anything, and you’re just satisfied…it’s good enough. You don’t do the things you need to do to make it better. It’s not being a pessimist, it’s just you want something better,” said Freeman, 65, a program manager at United Airlines.
As a husband and father of four adult children, he said he is happy with his life but is not an optimist. Instead of labeling himself as a pessimist, he considers himself, “honest.”
“If you’re not moving ahead, you’re falling behind. And you need to make sure that you know where you’re trying to go,” Freeman said.
He suggested a person’s actions have a more profound effect on their lifespan than being overly hopeful or disgruntled. To him, taking care of responsibilities—health, financial or others— is not a goal killer.
“If the goal is to always do something better, then that means you do some subtle things. You may not get that promotion, but you always go to plan b, c or d.”
And though she straddles the line between optimism and pessimism, Wise agreed.
“Optimists see everything for how great it is in life and don’t see negative aspects… (Pessimists) see the grey and the black and white,” she said.
As she strives for life beyond retail, Wise remains positive — she amended her five-year plan to include becoming a certified public accountant and owning her own accounting firm.
She said she thinks she’ll be satisfied with life by at least her 50th birthday.
“You’re finally satisfied in life because you’re established in your career, hopefully you’re out of student loan debt and you’re just more settled and not worrying as much as in your 20s and 30s.”
And if Dale Freeman is any proof of happiness in older age, Wise can surely expect to see the glass as half full in her future.