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What it Means to Be Happy Changes As Employees Age

What it means to be happy changes as employees 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 alone.

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."

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They found that younger bloggers described experiences of happiness as being times when they felt excited, ecstatic, 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 loss.)  In previous Psychology Today posts, 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.

 

To learn more about how to motivate employees, and yourself, check out my new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.  Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

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