Most everyone experiences happiness—but did you know that exactly what happiness means to you will likely change over time?

Looking for Answers

"It's something many of us feel is intuitively true—we experience happiness differently as we age. For psychologists then, the question becomes why does this happen," explains Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, associate director of Columbia University's Motivation Science Center and author of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.

To answer this question, Cassie Mogilner, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently took a close look at what emotions people associate with being happy, to determine how and why this changes over time.

Capturing Bloggers' Emotions

"One of my collaborators created a web crawler [a program that searches the web, usually for indexing purposes] to explore the blogosphere and capture any time someone wrote, "I feel" or "I'm feeling,'" Mogilner says. The crawler combed 12 million blogs for entries related to happiness, allowing the researchers to gain a better understanding of what each blogger actually meant by this term, and how their feelings corresponded with their stage of life.

Different Types of Happiness

What Mogilner and her colleagues discovered is that there are two very distinct experiences of happiness. One is associated with feeling excited, while the other occurred with feelings of peace. "In their teens and 20s, bloggers were significantly more likely to express excited happiness," Mogilner says. "In their thirties, people were equally likely to express excited and calm happiness. People in their forties and above were more likely to express feeling peaceful happiness." Mogilner and her colleagues also conducted a survey about happiness among people ages 18 to 80, and the results were consistent with the blog findings.

Why the Shift?

Mogilner speculates that the reason for the change in people's understanding and experience of happiness is likely due to the fact that younger people are looking to the future and anticipating all that lies ahead, while older people, who are more settled and don't have as many years ahead of them, are more appreciative of the present and what they already have.

How this actually plays out in a literal sense is that a 25-year-old might be happiest having a stimulating time at a party on a Saturday night, while a 45-year-old could be quite content to stay home and enjoy a quiet night in with the family.

The Take Away

While some people might have trouble embracing the shift in perspective, Halvorson says it's a normal part of the maturing experience: "I think it's so important to understand that this is a very natural evolution, and that it's not at all a bad thing—feeling relaxation and serenity is not less good than feeling cheerful and excited," Halvorson says. "They are just different senses of happiness, produced by differences in how we see our goals in life." So if you find your definition of a good time has changed, acknowledge your new perspective, enjoy it—and know that it may change again in the future.

Cassie Mogilner reviewed this article.


Cassie Mogilner, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Phone interview June 13, 2013.

Cassie Mogilner, Sepandar D. Kamvar, and Jennifer Aaker. "The Shifting Meaning of Happiness." Social Psychology and Personality Science 2011: 000(00): 1-8. Accessed online 22 June 2013.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Associate Director of Columbia University's Motivation
Science Center and author of Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. Email interview June 4, 2013.


Heidi Grant Halvorson, "How Happiness Changes With Age." The Atlantic (Online) 28 May 2013. Accessed 27 May 2013.