Ambition and Happiness Post 40, 50, 60
Early ambition drives us to think about life, and what we want out of it. We start out attending school and thinking about what we will become – a teacher, doctor, lawyer or business owner? Will we have children? We are young, ambitious and ready to explore what life has to offer us.
But as time moves on, and life happens, our attitude about what is important to us shifts. A study by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics shows happiness peeks at ages 23 and 69; as we start out our adult lives, and later during retirement. What happens in-between, and how that impacts what we seek when we are 40, 50 or 60 is interesting to consider as we plan for the future.
Life is divided into major periods; typically driven by life events that happen at certain ages. Early on, we are ready to step out and start life. There is ambition to build a career and get promoted, and we want to have big experiences – travel adventures, high-impact sports or explore with friends. Research from the Families and Work Institute show that about age 35, things begin to shift. Our level of ambition and what we want out of life changes. We are often in the midst of raising children, and that has a big impact on what is most important to us. Having a demanding career while raising children can put extreme physical and mental demands upon us. The importance, and need to care for family has historically impacted women the most, and often cause women to participate in what has been dubbed the “opt-out revolution”; to either step out of the career track or to step back (take a lesser or a part-time role).
The next key shift occurs at age 50. Age gives us perspective, and often shifts us to seek life experiences over title or pay. We begin to seek a lasting impact on the world. The decline of ambition for women specifically slows when they reach retirement age. There is a second wind! But this time it is focused on pursuing life-long dreams or reinventing careers to fit interests that may have been put aside earlier in life. Life isn’t one gradual decline in happiness and ambition, as many people think. Instead, life is a U bend (high when we are young, lower in the middle and high again later in life). In the US, a study by the National Academy of Sciences of over 340,000 men and women ages 18 to 85, showed that global well-being (your general outlook on life and happiness with yourself) begins to decline in your 20’s (as life gets harder) but has a sharp increase starting at age 50, and by the time you are 85 you are generally happier with yourself than at age 18.
Having the right beliefs and attitude toward aging will help you to maximize the second half of that “U.” As people continue to live longer, it becomes increasing important to find ways to stay active and engaged in life. Your attitude toward life, and happiness, has a huge impact on what you think you can accomplish. The Journal of Happiness, found that happiness increases with age well into the 80’s, but that most people (young and old) assume that happiness decreases with age. This is important because that belief can set you on the wrong path in life; such as making risky choices earlier in life (like not preserving health), or to not maximize your happiness potential later in life (by thinking you were happier during your younger years). Some of the reasons why people are happier later in life include an acceptance and appreciation of who you really are, an enjoyment for the little things and everyday experiences, and being more excepting of other people.
The old saying that “doing what you love will make you happy,” is true. There is plenty of time at age 50 to embrace that second wind and start your new business, change careers or learn a new hobby. Pursuing your dreams and setting achievable goals, will help you to fulfill your ambitions, make you more balanced and bring you happiness.
To read more about ambition and happiness, to go:
To read stories of women over 40 achieving their dreams, to go:
Over the decades, shifts have impacted what is acceptable for women and men when balancing work and ambition. Generational research by Families and Work Institute shows Boomers are typically more work-centric (placing priority on work over family), while Generation X are more dual-centric (placing equal priority on family and work), and Generation X led the way for fathers spending more time with or becoming the primary caregivers to children. The youngest workers, Generation Y (millennials!) continue this trend toward dual-centric paths, including a downtrend in career ambitions. Many Gen Y women and men are working hard, but not wanting the trade-offs they would have to make by advancing into jobs with more responsibility.