Finding happiness — whether at 23 or 69 — is 'terrifying' and 'exhilarating'

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Finding happiness — whether at 23 or 69 — is 'terrifying' and 'exhilarating'
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Happiness, via Flickr. (From upper left and clockwise, photos by schani, Thomas Leuthard, Sukanto Debnath, eflon, Walt Stoneburner, babasteve)

A study released this week says 23- and 69-year-olds are among the happiest humans. Those stuck in the middle? Not so much.

The study's lead researcher, Hannes Schwandt, looked at the responses of 23,161 Germans, aged 17 to 85, who rated how happy they thought they'd be five years later. When those five years were up, they were asked how happy they actually were at the moment. Schwandt's study investigated whether humans make systemic errors in anticipating their well-being and how those errors change with age.

During the study, published through the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, Schwandt discovered that younger respondents overestimated how satisfied they expected to be, while older participants sold short their future contentment. Still, both groups were happier. He says this "U-shaped" pattern of happiness — contentment when we're younger and older, but not at, say, 43 — is abundant in studies in behavioral and social science. It's spotted in more than 50 countries, across income levels and even in apes.

To get an admittedly nonscientific glimpse behind the statistics, we asked 23- and 69-year-olds (humans, not apes) simply: What makes you happy?

While the specifics of their answers varied — 23-year-olds were more inclined to say, for instance, "rock climbing" — the root of the happiness was chiefly found in family, relationships, faith and hope for the future.

Here are some excerpts from the brief answers we received.

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From Caitlin Weeks, St. Louis, 23:

On the day I turned 23, I went to the botanical gardens with the guy I had a crush on, and he asked me to officially become his girlfriend. It's 10 months later, and we're engaged.

That's what makes 23 so great. Our lives are just starting to come together. Everything is exciting and new. The future stretches out before us bright and terrible. The decisions I make now will impact the rest of my life (50 to 70 years, probably), which is terrifying and exhilarating.

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From Mike Landfair, Oregon, 69:

I live with my wife, Beverly, and our golden retriever, Ralph. They make me happy. Nobody has ever loved me as Bev does and she tells me daily. Our dog follows me from room to room, sitting at my feet, lying on the sofa near me or just loving me with his big brown eyes. They both accept me as I am. Beverly and I will be married 21 years on July 25 and I am so happy that I will re-up for another 21.

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From Kelly Moreno, Florida, 23:

I've worked five years on my undergraduate degree, I make nowhere near as much money as I'd like, and I've gained more weight than I would ever admit.

However, I have the most wonderful husband this planet has ever seen, the loveliest sisters I ever could have dreamed, and two of the most hard-working parents this world did ever see.

This makes my current age, 23, the happiest I have ever been. My life, together with the goals and future children I have planned for it, are still ahead. And even if they don't happen, I will still have what I need. I don't know if age 24 will bring my dream job or riches or a skinny body, but I am certain it will be a happier age than 23 was simply because it will mean I have lived one more year with the people I love.

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From Cynthia Martin, New Jersey, 69:

Tuesday was my 69th birthday. I was born and raised in New York City, so actually have been privileged to see many changes and, in many cases, live history. Now, I think I have contentment more than happiness, that quiet feeling inside that tells you, "All is well." My contentment has nothing to do with money or possessions in life; it has more to do with inner peace. I have fought my dragons and demons, and I came out the other side healthier, wiser and more content than I have been in years. Don't get me wrong: This is no Pollyanna existence. I just don't worry about it as much.

At present, I try and live my life in the day. I can't change yesterday, and I have no control over tomorrow, so I will concentrate on today. I stay active, try to give back to other people, smile a lot and have a great deal of gratitude for what I have. (But not every day; I am not being canonized for sainthood.) Oh, and lastly I do not feel 69. I feel more like I have a lot of things to accomplish and do yet; the body might not agree, but the mind is more than willing to try.

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From Richard Heby, New York, 23:

I live in NYC in my parents' house.

I'm happy a lot of the time due to naturally high serotonin and dopamine levels in my brain. When these happy chemicals are gone, I become unhappy.

My erratic emotions are fueled by things I can't control: jealousy in love, not being able to afford $3,000 a month to live alone in NYC, et cetera.

I ghostwrite happiness self-help books for a living. I know how to be happy, but I'm spiteful. Happiness is about self-knowledge. I guess 23- and 69-year-olds think they know themselves.

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From Albert Price, Washington, D.C., 69:

I'm a single, church-going retiree of 69. My opinion of myself is that I am easy to make happy, though I have not found the compatible mate. At the moment, three things are sure to make me happy: a relationship with my Creator, the company of an attractive woman, and the enjoyment of a great meal.

There is nothing I can find that equals the satisfaction of my relationship with God. This is in contrast with my early belief that physical pleasure could fill that position. The company of an attraction woman is sort of a constant desire. A great meal? What can I say? (Burp!) It gives me the feeling that life is the most precious treasure imaginable.

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From Clem Hurliman, Oregon, 23:

1. We are in the best shapes of our lives.

2. We are in our sexual prime.

3. Relationships are just starting to sprout around us, whether it is with our significant other or with our co-workers.

4. Our careers are just getting started, and we are hopeful for a long-lasting, good career.

5. We are not yet in a huge amount of debt.

6. We are still closer to childhood than middle age.

7. We are seeing ourselves become the people we want to be.

8. We are shaping our own future and finally not depending on others.

9. We are earning significant income for the first time in our lives.

10. We have more independence than ever before.

11. Having children is not too far around the corner.

12. Our parents are at an age where we can finally understand their motives and appreciate them.

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From Kathy Trower, Arkansas, 69:

When you get older, you realize your priorities change. Faith becomes a more essential part of life for me. My family is important. Caring friends are the icing on the cake. Friends and family constitute a sense of worth, joy, and excitement for me. Being close to God gives me strength to withstand the pitfalls of life. Even though, I have cancer, I know that all are there for me.

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From Tasha McElhiney, Indiana, 23:

I have a wonderfully supportive husband who works hard so that I can stay home with our daughter and soon-to-be newborn. My family is the reason I am happy, despite not having gone to college or hit any traditional young adult "milestones."

When I am not caring for my loving family, I am sewing up a storm and creating beautiful handmade art that can be cherished. Being a mother is the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced and even though I skipped college and I miss my job, all it takes to melt away any regrets is to see my daughter's beautiful blue eyes filled with glee while grinning like a Cheshire cat. When I look at my husband and my daughters, I know that they are the only thing I will ever need to be fulfilled.

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From Joyce Fields, California , 69:

I'm 69, and I'm very happy!

Let me list some of the reasons why:

- God has blessed me to live long enough to be a part of my grandchildren's lives. The younger ones very happily spend every other weekend with their grandfather and me, just like the older ones did!

- I am in awe of my God-given gifts, especially being the author of eight books!

- My "inner peace cup" overflows!

- I am surrounded by the love of my husband, family, and friends!

- At 69, I don't feel any differently than I did at 29! No aches, pains, pills, or prunes!

- I am grateful for my many blessings and thank God constantly!

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From Micheal Boyd, San Diego, 23:

Out of all the many blessings I have, what makes me the happiest at 23 is my beautiful wife. Many people my age are still dating and partying like there's no tomorrow -- while I'm busy loving on, sharing laughter with and building on the best part of what life could've ever offered me: marriage. Some may say I'm too young to be married, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that marrying my wife was the best decision I've ever made -- and it was at the most perfect time in my life. My wife is literally my best friend, and she brings me all the joy in the world. For me, it's obvious that being married is the happiest part of my life.

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From Dennis L. Johnson, New York, 69:

Happiness does not depend on wealth, or fame, or even family.

So what makes me happy? My happiness comes from within, from my heart. Do I like everything I encounter in life? Of course not! But I would rather face the things I do not like while being happy rather than being unhappy.

Happiness is a choice: You can choose to be happy or you can choose to be unhappy. The bible says, as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.

Every morning I have to make a decision -- a decision to be happy, or a decision to be sad. Each of us can change our thoughts. So, do what I do every day: Decide to be happy.

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From Katie Rucke, Minnesota, 23:

Despite being chronically single and still living at home with Mom and Dad, I find my life to be rather pleasant.

Sure, the frequent tequila on the rocks with a lime helps lessen the blow when things don't go as I planned, or my relationships with friends or lovers come to an end, but I've found that happiness is often a choice — my choice.

As people come and go in my life, the only constant I have is the choice to make the most of every situation. Laughing at the oddities of my life, such as not being able to walk for days after my brilliant decision to go for a run wearing water shoes, should be seen as a humorous chapter in my life instead of a tragedy or unfortunate event. As my brother once told me, it's all about perception.

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From Karon Brandt, Pennsylvania, 69:

It's taken me 69 years to attain wisdom, to become a Reiki Master and a healer.

I've evolved as a human being -- a wife two times, a mother three times.

With my soul mate's encouragement, we have traveled a twisting but parallel path for a quarter century so I could become what I am today: happy!

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From Emma Gat, San Francisco, 23:

My life is happy because I feel I'm in control over my future. In the past couple of years, I've realized that moping around wasn't going to make something good ever happen. I've realized that my life was... well, blah. That was because I always just and let things happen to me; who does that? I couldn't get off my parents' couch for anything, and I gained 30 pounds in six months. Looking ahead, toward my future, gave me nothing because I thought I had no control over it.

Then, I realized: It's my life. I can change my own life! Sure, I can't control everything that happens, but I can get up and try my best. So now, 60 pounds lighter, and with a San Francisco apartment, a boyfriend, and a dog, I am happy as a 23-year-old clam.

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From Rose Marye Prust, Texas, 69:

It is an interesting question to ponder, "What makes you happy?"

First, are my dogs, both of them. There is no greater joy for me than waking up first thing in the morning and being aware of a little fur-ball curled on either side of me.

The second is even more obvious, though: It is my writing. Sitting and staring at the computer screen, and watching as each letter becomes a word is what makes me happy. I have always wanted to write professionally and now that I am taking the first steps as a freelancer, it is one of the most exciting times of my life.

That is where happiness begins.

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