Research shows that older adults outpace young adults in the quest for happiness. What can we learn from them?
From Saturday Night Live’s “Grumpy Old Man” to the clichéd, oddball elderly characters in some literature, stereotypes of older adults permeate our perception of aging. Contrary to cultural commentary and our obsession with youth, a growing body of research shows that older adults are happier than both middle agers and young adults. And considering that adults over 65 will outnumber kids under 14 by 2050, the emotional health of such a large sector of the population affects everyone.
“Longer lives can, and I believe will, improve quality of life at all ages,” says Laura Carstensen, a leading expert on the “paradox of aging,” a term coined by social scientists to describe the findings on increased levels of happiness despite the well-known maladies of aging. “If there’s a paradox of aging, it’s that recognizing that we won’t live forever changes our perspective of life in positive ways,” says Carstensen.
In her popular TED Talk Carstensen explains that “in the blink of an eye” we nearly doubled the length of time people live, as the human lifespan increased more in the 20th century than in any other millennia of human evolution combined. At the same time life expectancy began to rise dramatically, fertility rates began to fall. Carstensen says this reversal has shifted the “pyramid” that has always represented the generations, with youth at the large base, and a tiny peak at the top representing the few survivors in the older generation. It now looks more like a “rectangle of generations.” Carstensen says that cultural factors such as science and technology have contributed to living longer, but she acknowledges there are problems associated with extended lives— poverty, disease, loss of social status. Yet Carstensen is quick to point out that aging is hardly a downward spiral, as older adults can draw from a wealth of experiences and knowledge. And Carstensen adds emotional well-being to the list.
A recent Gallup poll found that 85-year-olds are happier than 18-year-olds. Older people surveyed reported less stress, worry and anger than younger respondents.
A psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Carstensen is one of several researchers who conducted a study on emotional changes as people age. They studied people aged 18 to 94 over a 10-year span. Participants were given pagers for a week at a time and were paged intermittently each day to answer questions like these: “On a one-to-seven scale, how happy are you right now? How sad right now? How frustrated right now?”
The results painted a picture of people who appear happier as they age. The study showed a slight downturn over age 85, yet the slight decrease still did not descend to the levels reported at much younger ages.
A more recent study conducted at the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging found that older adults are happier, less depressed, more satisfied and have less perceived stress than younger adults.
The authors of the study speculate that this increase in positive mental health could be attributed to the wisdom people gain as they grow older, which they define as “a multi-component personality trait that includes empathy, compassion, self-knowledge, openness to new ideas, decisiveness, emotional regulation and doing things for others rather than for yourself.”
Some limitations of the UC San Diego study, however, are that they surveyed only people who are not in nursing homes and do not have terminal illnesses. And all respondents were from the San Diego area, so it’s unclear whether aging adults in, say, Oklahoma would respond similarly.
Carstensen and the other Stanford researchers have also tried to find holes in their data. What if, for example, it’s generational? What if these younger generations are just less happy as a whole? Could “the good old days” be linked to a more content older generation?
Not according to the Stanford studies. They found that it wasn’t just one particular generation reporting greater levels of happiness, but it was individuals reporting relatively greater positive experiences over time.
Skeptics also ponder: Maybe as we age, we’re too unaware to realize we’re unhappy. Carstensen addresses this too. She says her team looked at factors that could have influenced the results, such as cognitive impairment, but they actually found the most mentally sharp older adults show the most positivity. And in cases of difficult circumstances, older people handle them remarkably well. The researchers continually attempted to find alternative explanations to their findings, but the more they dug, the stronger evidence they found to support the paradox.
Carstensen does point out that it’s a bit too simplistic to say older adults are “happy.” She says they are more positive, but they’re also more likely than younger people to experience mixed emotions, such as a “tear in the eye while smiling.” Events such as graduations and children getting married are milestones, but they also signal the end of a chapter. They’re more comfortable with sadness. She adds that they can view injustice with compassion but not despair, and she believes that in the future older people will be more instrumental in solving world problems.
Her team also found that older people remember more positive images than negative. When shown an assortment of happy and sad faces, for example, older people look toward the smiling faces, which she says translates to greater levels of contentment on a daily basis.
And these positive outlooks, according to Carstensen, can all be linked to older people’s perception of time. She says when we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. “When we recognize we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly.”
“When we recognize we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly.”
But do we have the capacity to harness the mind-set of older individuals even when we are young? Can we slow down our perception of time? In a podcast interview, Carstensen says people will come up to her after a lecture and say, “How can I get old faster?” She adds, “As we age…we savor life and take less notice of trivial matters.”
There’s a reason for the rising popularity of books that guide people into present-moment thinking, such as Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It’s the same reason motivational speakers often ask people to pretend they have one year to live when deciding what they want to do with their lives. There is, indeed, power in our conception of time.
While it is possible to shift our mind-set and focus to the present, a depth of life experiences comes with age. While it’s not necessarily something younger people can emulate, it’s definitely something we can look forward to.
“Can you imagine any emotional experience that’s richer than that,” Carstensen asks,“where you’re seeing the past, you’re in the present, you’re thinking about the future…it’s all there, and it’s incredibly gratifying?”