Research shows that when older people look at pictures of faces or events, they tend to focus on and recall the happier ones more and the negative ones less. But why? Some psychologists assert that cognitive processes are responsible; for example, when an older person fixates on and remembers positive events and forgets the bad ones, it helps regulate emotions, allowing the person to view life in a better light.
In a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, psychologist Derek M. Isaacowitz of Northeastern University and the late Fredda Blanchard-Fields of Georgia Institute of Technology assert that more rigorous research is needed.
“There is a lot of good theory about this age difference in happiness,” said Isaacowitz, “but much of the research does not provide direct evidence” of the links between such phenomena and actual happiness.
Other research supports the idea that as people get older, they seek out situations that will lift their moods.
For example, they might trim social circles of friends or acquaintances who bring them down. Still other work shows that older adults are better able to let go of loss and disappointment over their unachieved goals, and direct their thoughts toward greater wellbeing.
What’s missing, however, is a consistently demonstrated and direct link between these strategies and phenomena and changes of mood for the better, say the authors. One reason, Isaacowitz suggests, is that lab tests yield results that are not straightforward.
“When we try to use those cognitive processes to predict change of mood, they don’t always do so,” he said. “Sometimes looking at positive pictures doesn’t make people feel better.”
Research on this subject also reveals contradictions. Some people—younger ones, for example—may make themselves feel better by thinking of the negative in others’ lives.
And whereas some psychologists find that high scores on certain cognitive tests correlate in older people with the ability to stay happier, other researchers suggest late life happiness is an effect of cognitive losses, which force older people to concentrate on simpler, happier thoughts.
More rigorous research won’t necessarily overthrow the current theories, said Isaacowitz, but may actually complicate the picture. “It won’t be as easy to say old people are happier. But even if they are happier on average, we still want to know in what situations does this particular strategy make this particular person with these particular qualities or strengths feel good.”