A 15-year-old’s greatest wish is to be 18, and yet, most 21-year-olds will say their 18-year-old selves were kind of dumb — even though both are just three years away from that age.
No matter how you change the numbers, this phenomenon will apply almost universally in one form or another.
When I was 8, I desperately wanted to be 10, like my neighbor who seemed so much stronger and smarter than I was at the time. When I was 10, I didn’t feel any different — maybe because I had no 8-year-old neighbor to compare myself to.
When I was 20, I thought by 30, I’d have life figured out. It was only at 23 that I looked around and wondered: “Why is nothing happening?” Nothing was happening because I wasn’t doing. I started right then, and, seven years later, I’m still going. I will turn 30 in two months, and now my 20-year-old self looks like an idiot.
I’m sure in my 30s, I’ll think my 40s will be much better, only to realize I’m still nearly as clueless about life at 45, yet not without that same patronizing smile back at my 30-year-old self that I now hold whenever I think of my early 20s.
Why is that? Why do we enjoy looking forward so much yet can only laugh and shake our heads when we look back? Well, in a nutshell: You’ll never love your past as much as you love your future. No one ever does.
In your future, the perfect version of you always exists. Everything is wide open. You feel as if you can achieve anything and everything, probably all at the same time. Your plans are intact. Your goals are in reach. Time is still flexible.
In your past, everything has already happened. There are no more pieces to be moved around. They’re all in place, and no matter whether you like the puzzle you’ve pieced together or not, you’ll always spot many places where you could have done better.
The perfect version of you never materialized. Most plans went to hell. Many goals fell out of reach. And time is just gone altogether. That can be demoralizing, but it’s just part of life.
Retirees don’t get as much satisfaction out of their past careers as college graduates expect from their future ones. Twenty-somethings don’t feel as autonomous as their teenage selves would have hoped to feel. Stressed moms don’t have it together as much as they believed they would before they gave birth.
This is a frustrating game you can play all your life — or you can realize that “all this looking back is messing with your neck.” At the end of the day, it matters not how well your past stacks up against your once imagined future. It only matters that you were content with the present as you lived through it.
At what age are we the happiest? That’s an impossible question, highlighted by the fact that you can find a theory for each major age bracket to back it as the answer.
There’s “the U-bend of life,” a theory that suggests happiness is high when we’re young, declines towards middle age, bottoms at 46 on average, then goes back up and reaches new heights in our 70s and 80s.
The idea is that family stress, worries about work, and anxiety about how our peers perceive us peak when we’re in the thick of life. As we get older, we care less about opinions and find contentment in what we have rather than what we hope to achieve.
When Lydia Sohn asked 90-somethings what they regretted most, however, she found the opposite: People were happiest when they were busy being the glue of their own social microcosmos — usually in their 40s.
Every single one of these 90-something-year-olds, all of whom are widowed, recalled a time when their spouses were still alive and their children were younger and living at home. As a busy young mom and working professional who fantasizes about the faraway, imagined pleasures of retirement, I responded, “But weren’t those the most stressful times of your lives?” Yes of course, they all agreed. But there was no doubt that those days were also the happiest.
At what age are we the happiest? It’s not only an impossible question, it’s an unnecessary one to ask. The answer will be different for every person to ever live, and our best guess is that it’ll be a stretch of days on which you felt fairly satisfied with life rather than a singular event or short period of exuberant bliss.
What we do know is that your best shot at stringing together a series of such “everything is good enough” days is neither to get lost in future castles in the sky nor to constantly commiserate how unlike those castles your past has become. You’ll have to abandon both the future and the past in favor of the present.
Imagine you have two choices: You can either be happy every day of your life but not remember a single one, or you can have an average, even unsatisfying life but die wholeheartedly believing you’re the happiest person in the world.
It matters not which one you choose because in both scenarios, you’ll die on a good day. One sacrifices the past, the other the future, but the present is what counts.
You’ll never love your past as much as you love your future, but that’s okay because life is neither about tomorrow nor about yesterday. It’s about today — and if you make today a good day with your thoughts, actions, and decisions, the idea of age will soon fade altogether.