It seems the older we get, the less happy we become, at least until we reach our 40s. However, this trend stands in stark opposition to previous research on the topic. Until very recently, the correlation between happiness and age was a reliably positive correlation.
Some of the theories behind this correlation are rooted in the idea that millennials, who are now beginning to enter the thirty-something decade, are finding that adulthood does not meet their expectations.
Yet very few explanations touch on the rapid changes in our world including the recent economic crisis, crippling debt, hiring freezes, and cultural changes that are impacting the coming-of-age generation, for better or worse.
The research is, however, showing trends in data that we can use to avoid the thirty-something-slump that they’re on about. Here are seven things to do in your 20s to avoid being miserable in your 30s:
1. Manage your expectations.
Cited time and time again as a reason for unhappiness is the idea that our expectations are out of line with reality. The incongruous relationship between the two leads to inner turmoil driving our happiness down. Social media may be to blame for this feeling, as the ability flip through hundreds of curated images in a matter of minutes leads us to compare the reality of our lives to what we falsely assume is the reality of others’.
However, we can alter our expectations by altering our perspective. Dreams and reality don’t always look the same for oftentimes the dream we imagine fails to include the years of hard work that bring it to fruition. Consistently remind yourself that you are exactly where you need to be right now. If you need to, reduce the time you spend on social media and/or take up bullet journaling to keep you focused on your personal goals.
To add some perspective, consider this:
A 1977 study, cited by The Atlantic, found that physics Nobel winners were an average of 36 years old when they did their prize-winning research, while chemistry prize winners were an average of 39 years old. – The Huffington Post
And remember that is just an average. Becoming your best self is not a race against other people or time, it’s a lifelong journey that requires patience and discipline over years, and in many cases, decades.
2. Consistently invest in yourself.
Before you rush out and purchase the entire self-help section at Barnes and Noble, consider first the idea that self-investment is more than simply reading about it. Self-investment requires action.
The core parts of who you are include your values, but your hobbies, interests, and accomplishments are key components as well. Use your twenties to build your identity capital — a coin termed by Dr Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade. Identity capital is “the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships.”
Investing in yourself means continuing your education (even in non-traditional ways), reading books in new genres, going to plays and the theatre, trying new fitness routines, tasting new foods, and challenging yourself to reach a goal that makes other people raise their eyebrows.
Can’t think of a thing that would help you increase your identity capital? Here is my list of 51 Ideas To Build Your Identity Capital.
3. Make time for your relationships.
Through social media, we’ve become a more individualistic generation. Even our own research has indicated that more twenty-somethings are single than in a relationship, don’t belong to social clubs or organizations, and don’t attend Meet-Ups or similar events. What’s more, over two thirds of survey respondents report having less than six close friends.*
With stable relationships on the decline, what felt freeing in your teenage and twenty-somethings years, often leads to a decline in happiness in your thirty-something years as you lack the social support necessary to move through life’s challenges.
4. Volunteer in your community.
Circling back to the lacking presence of strong communities, one way to strengthen and stabilize relationships around you is to volunteer. Volunteering is a way to help you find new friends and to find new interests and strengths that will help you with career opportunities.
As we get older, we tend to feel as though we have less time for the important things as much of our time is taken up by responsibilities and obligations. According to Psychology Today,
Volunteers are happier and healthier than non-volunteers. In fact, during later life, volunteering is even more beneficial for one’s health than exercising and eating well. Older people who volunteer remain physically functional longer, have more robust psychological well-being, and live longer. However, older people who volunteer are almost always people who volunteered earlier in life. Health and longevity gains from volunteering come from establishing meaningful volunteer roles before you retire and continuing to volunteer once you arrive in your post-retirement years.
As you can see, making the time and effort to volunteer is early in life is an investment that will continue to benefit you as you age. Make time once a month or even every other month to volunteer your time and skills with an organization in your community.
5. Learn how to manage your money (including budgeting, investing, and saving for retirement).
In our survey, “What I Wish I Knew In My 20s,” 73 percent of respondents wish they had been savers instead of spenders throughout their twenty-something years. Further more, 23 percent wish they had started saving retirement sooner.
Money may not buy happiness, but strategic financial planning can make your life a whole lot easier as you age.
There are a few basic actions you can take to be aggressive with your goals this year:
- Create a budget based on your goals and spending (find our free basic budgeting worksheet here).
- Automate your savings account.
- Begin saving for retirement, open a high-yield savings account, taking advantage of tax-advantage retirement accounts like a 401(k) or Roth IRA for example. (Note: I highly recommend opening a Betterment account — I have been investing and saving with them for two years now and they are by far my favorite service to use.)
- Work with a financial planner if you are not sure of what your financial goals are or should be.
The solutions are simple, yet many fail to even take the first steps to create a budget and track their spending. I highly recommend getting to know your spending intimately. If doing it by hand doesn’t work for you, use Mint.com to create and track your budget.
6. Establish yourself in a stable career.
Many millennials are turning towards entrepreneurship and a freelance lifestyle. While I personally am in favor of this trend, it can be extremely difficult for young millennials who are first starting out, particularly when they have very little experience in any industry. Unless you are well-established in your industry and have a host of expert knowledge under your belt, many will fail on this path simply because they have not yet put in the time necessary to succeed.
If you’re not happy with the career path you’ve chosen, you’re likely to feel worse about work. Some research has shown that 30-somethings are less satisfied with their jobs and more emotionally burnt out than people in their 20s and 40s.
A stable career doesn’t mean you have to forsake your passions. It also doesn’t mean to throw caution to the wind and quit your day job. Entrepreneurship can be difficult and traditional career paths can be difficult. As you get to know your strengths and weaknesses, you will be better at choosing what path is for you.
Take solace in knowing that you can change your career path at any point in time–you are never stuck in one job forever. That said, it is more difficult to take risks when you’re older. If you set yourself up for a strong career (and financial) foundation in your twenties, you will be able to make any transition you want in your later years.
7. Be active.
We’ve all heard that sitting is the new smoking, and we already know the consequences of smoking. Our generation sits more frequently and spends more time on the computer and phones than previous generations leading to a whole host of new health problems, like tech neck for example.
Previous generations have a reactive approach to health, rather than preventative. For example, many of our parents and grandparents take medicine to regulate high blood pressure and cholesterol because it’s too late to see significant changes in their health and longevity of their lives by changing their diets and activity levels. According to Goldman Sachs, “For Millennials, ‘healthy’ doesn’t just mean ‘not sick.” It’s a daily commitment to eating right and exercising.”
Exercise helps us to feel good about ourselves, and the better we feel, the more confident we are. Confidence transcends all aspects of your life — in fact one of the primary obstacles in succeeding financially is low self-confidence. Exercise is a simple way to feel more powerful in your career, personal relationships, and more.
Is there a perfect way to live? It will probably be millennia from now before we can even begin to say that with any certainty. However, we can take note from the research that has been done in the past and make small changes to our lifestyles now to lead happier and more fulfilled lives.
*According to our raw data. Full report forthcoming.