NAVIGATING BETWEEN OUR IDEALS AND REALITY
A Brief Interview with Jeanne L. Tsai, Stanford Professor of Psychology and Director of Stanford Culture and Emotion Laboratory
The Stanford Center on Longevity recently completed the Milestones study, in which they asked Americans across the life span at what age they actually accomplished major life milestones, such as getting married and buying a home, as well as when they ideally wanted to accomplish these same milestones. Assessing people’s actual versus ideal experiences was inspired by your research on Affect Valuation Theory. Why is it important to examine both actual and ideal experiences?
I think it’s important to distinguish actual experience from ideals because people often confuse the two. We see someone behaving a certain way, and we think (often mistakenly) that they want to behave in that way. The Milestones Project perfectly illustrates this: younger adults are viewed as wanting to disrupt the traditional milestones because they are marrying later and purchasing homes later, but the data actually show that younger adults want to marry and purchase homes earlier than they actually do. This means there must be other reasons why younger adults are behaving in this way.
Alternatively, we may assume that because people want something, they are able to attain it. In our own work, we see this in the context of emotion. We find that on average people don’t actually feel how they ideally want to feel, probably because their temperament or their circumstances make it hard to achieve their ideal affect all the time. I think it’s also important to differentiate actual from ideal because it also allows for the possibility that people’s ideals are not the same. Often, we think people want to feel the same way, for example, but our work illustrates that people want to feel differently depending on their culture.
This study revealed substantial variation among age groups, or generations, in people’s actual experience of life milestones, but very little variability in their ideals. For example, there was a substantial stepwise decline in the percentage of people owning a home by age 28 (i.e. Generation X was less likely to own a home than Baby Boomers, who were less likely than the World War II Generation). On average, however, people of all age groups aspired to own a home by age 28. Given your own work on how actual versus ideal experiences are shaped, does this finding surprise you?
On the one hand, it doesn’t surprise me because I think beliefs and values about the right way of doing things – in this case, when you should get married, buy a home – are very ingrained in our culture. At the same time, I think the results on saving for retirement are really encouraging. They suggest that with education and alternative models for doing things, beliefs, expectations, and even behavior, can change.
Younger generations are less likely to achieve certain life milestones by their ideal age, and yet they persist in holding the same ideals as their older counterparts. As a result, we found that younger generations have the greatest discrepancy between their actual and ideal experiences. What implications do such findings have for well-being? Are their ways younger generations could offset potential declines in well-being as they pursue goals set across the life course?
Discrepancies can be motivating – when there is a discrepancy, people may work harder to reduce that discrepancy. But enduring discrepancies may result in lower well-being. In our work, we found that the greater the discrepancy between how people actually feel and how they want to feel, the more depressed they felt. One obvious way of reducing the discrepancy may be to change people’s ideals or expectations about when people should be able to hit those milestones.
The Milestones project demonstrates how pervasive and stable the American Dream still is today, despite dramatic shifts in American institutions. Yet, the study also shows the need for redesigning the American Dream so that young people can reach for attainable goals. From a cultural-psychological perspective, how realistic is it to redesign the American Dream and actually put it into practice? Is this even possible?
It’s possible, but cultural change has to be approached from multiple angles. In order to change ideas about when adults should be able to attain different parts of the American Dream, you have to change prevalent cultural practices, products, and institutions to reflect these new ideas about the timing of the American Dream.
To read more about Professor Tsai’s work on ideal affect, see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-cultures/201608/how-we-color-our-lives-the-emotions-we-desire
or for a list of all publications, go to: https://culture-emotion-lab.stanford.edu/publications/date-publication