They say we tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles but it seems that is far from a universal rule. According to psychologists in America our views on our past and future happiness change as a function of where we are in our lives.
From a survey of over 3000 American adults conducted at two time points spaced nine years apart, Margie Lachman and colleagues found that younger and middle-aged people tended to underestimate their past happiness and to overestimate their future happiness - probably because to do so helps motivate them to strive for a better life.
By contrast, older people (aged over 65) were more accurate in recalling their prior and future life satisfaction - in this case, to do so probably reflected their need to accept their life as it had been lived, combined with their greater understanding of our capacity to adjust emotionally to whatever life throws our way. Indeed, in line with the predictions of the older participants, most people's life satisfaction, in this study and others, actually changes very little through the years (in Western democracies, at least).
Lachman's team also looked out how adaptive it was for people to have either rose-tinted or darkly clouded views of their past and future. The results showed that at whatever age, it is beneficial to have a more realistic view of the past and future. Those participants who more accurately perceived their past and future happiness tended to suffer less depression and enjoy better health.
"The young have an illusion of continued improvement, seeing the past as worse than it really was and the future as better than it turns out to be," the researchers said. "This illusion is consistent with their motivational orientation toward continued growth and gains."
Margie E. Lachman, Christina Röcke, Christopher Rosnick, Carol D. Ryff (2008). Realism and Illusion in Americans' Temporal Views of Their Life Satisfaction: Age Differences in Reconstructing the Past and Anticipating the Future Psychological Science, 19 (9), 889-897 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02173.x
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.