Many people worry about the physical problems that come with getting older, and yet there is a wonderful benefit that may outweigh the negatives. According to a new Stanford study, a person’s sense of happiness and emotional balance seems to increase with age.
“As people age, they’re more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems,” said lead author Laura Carstensen, psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.
“We may be seeing a larger group of people who can get along with a greater number of people. They care more and are more compassionate about problems, and that may lead to a more stable world,” she said.
For 12 years, Carstensen and her team followed about 180 Americans between the ages of 18 and 94. During this time (between 1993 and 2005), some volunteers passed away and others moved out of certain age groups, so additional participants were added.
Prior studies have established a link between aging and happiness, but this research is the first long-term endeavor to track how the same group of people has changed over the years.
The study sought to answer questions most often wondered by social scientists: Are today’s seniors who claim happiness simply part of a socioeconomic era that predisposed them to a happy mindset? Or do people, whether born in good times or bad, have it inside themselves to peak in their old age with a smile?
So for one week every five years, participants kept pagers and were asked to immediately answer a series of questions whenever the devices alerted them. The sporadic tests were meant to gauge how happy, comfortable, and satisfied they were at any given moment.
“Our findings suggest that it doesn’t matter when you were born,” Carstensen said. “In general, people get happier as they get older.”
As time went on, the older participants reported fewer negative emotions and also more positive ones compared with their younger years. Interestingly, they were also inclined to report a mix of both positive and negative emotions more often than younger test subjects.
“As people get older, they’re more aware of mortality,” Carstensen said. “So when they see or experience moments of wonderful things, that often comes with the realization that life is fragile and will come to an end. But that’s a good thing. It’s a signal of strong emotional health and balance.”
Carstensen herself says she’s happier now at 56 than she was a few decades ago. She believes this difference can be attributed to “socio-emotional selectivity” – her theory that people invest in what’s most important to them when that time is short.
People who have lived a long time typically have made their peace with life’s successes and failures, while young people experience more frustration, stress, and disappointment over things like test scores, career goals and finding true love.
“This all suggests that as our society is aging, we will have a greater resource,” Carstensen said. “If people become more even-keeled as they age, older societies could be wiser and kinder societies.”
So why do we still have grumpy old men?
“Most of the grumpy old men out there are grumpy young men who grew old,” Carstensen said.
“Aging isn’t going to turn someone grumpy into someone who’s happy-go-lucky. But most people will gradually feel better as they grow older.”
This study can be found in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Source: Stanford University