For centuries, sages have alluded to a richness in life's later years that is lost on the young. But only in the last decade have researchers begun to measure happiness across the life span and, in doing so, try to understand why older people tend to be so content.
The explanation doesn't appear to be biological -- some chemical in the brain that mellows us just when all those plump neurons needed for thinking and memory are shriveling up. Rather, most scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.
"When you have that disaster at 10 in the morning, you can deal with it better when you're older," says Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at Scripps College in Claremont. "With people in their 20s, it throws them off. They experience more emotion, and it's more intense emotion."
In a study published in September in Psychological Science, Wood and her collaborator, neuroscientist Michael Kisley of the University of Colorado, recorded the brain activity of 63 adults, ranging in age, who were shown a series of negative and positive images, such as dead animals or a bowl of ice cream. Older adults were about 30% less reactive to the negative images compared with the younger adults.
Other studies have found similar results -- that older people experience negative emotion less often and recover from it more quickly. The insult that has your blood boiling for three days at age 20 may not even register a spike in blood pressure at age 60. And despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that anyone with gray hair has likely experienced his or her fair share of suffering, older folks are also adept at transcending bad memories.
"What we see is a real difference in how negative information is processed by the brain," Wood says. "When we talk about maturity or wisdom, we're talking about that ability to integrate negative emotion or cognitive information; being able to weigh it and not find it so disruptive."
Why people regulate their emotions better as they age may be due in part to school-of-hard-knocks experience. Eventually they learn the world will not end when the car breaks down or the child gets strep throat. The later stages of life also offer more opportunities to actively avoid those parts that are stressful or upsetting, Wood says.
"You can surround yourself with less negative people and events," she says. "At a certain point, you're established in your career. You don't have to put up with that annoying boss any more. You can structure your life the way you want to."
Influence of time One of the first researchers to discover that older people tend to be happier thinks there's another reason for this greater emotional control. It's linked to a person's sense of time. Older people are aware that life doesn't last forever -- and, with a finite amount of time ahead, they think it should be well spent.
In a study at Stanford University's Center on Longevity, psychologist Laura Carstensen showed that people who perceived their future time as limited had goals that were emotionally meaningful. People who perceived their futures as open-ended had goals that tended to be knowledge-related. Carstensen concluded that, as people age, they encounter "shrinking time horizons." With less time left, people tend to focus on the now. The 2002 study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
"As people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they tend to put more value on it," she says.
Younger people may anticipate that the older years will be bleak because the body fails and the mind is aware that time is running out. But older people typically aren't depressed by that.
"The paradox of aging is that there is this decline in physical well-being and cognitive status and yet an increase in psychological well-being," Carstensen says. "We [colleagues in her laboratory] don't think of that as a paradox, of course, because it's the decline that reminds people that life will not go on forever."
With an eye on the clock, older people are more selective about their activities and relationships, Wood says. The happiest find ways to feel useful, giving them a sense of purpose and making their time feel meaningful. The happiest tend to say they enjoy serving others in some capacity.
"I think of old age as the richest form of emotional satisfaction that is possible," Carstensen says. "There are still positive emotions, but there is also an understanding and appreciation that there is an ending around the corner."
An appreciation of remaining time leads older people to be more grateful for what they have, Carstensen and other researchers say. And being thankful is great for mental health. Studies by Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at UC Davis, show that people who focus on what they are grateful for have better emotional well-being, especially a positive mood, compared with people who focus on the negative or neutral information.
"When you focus on gratefulness, you see that other people are providing you with support and value you," says Emmons, author of the book "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier." "You see that good stuff doesn't just happen randomly. It helps you make sense out of life. Grateful people see their lives as gifts."
Being able to forgive is the flip side, he adds. "It helps reduce negative emotions like anger and resentment."
That's why neurotics, who get stuck on life's hurts, may be among the few personality types that don't mellow with age, Carstensen says. Neurotics are people who "keep going back to the same negative relationships and the same negative thoughts. They don't change," she says.
In fact, individual temperament is still the best predictor of happiness overall, Wood says. A child who is always smiling will likely be joyful decades later. The grumpy 30-year-old will likely be a grumpy, if slightly less so, 70-year-old.
A pleasant surpriseWhy does the idea of being most happy in old age come as a shock to young and old alike? Psychological science has a reason for that too. We humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
Younger people tend to think that happiness is getting what you want: a fabulous body, great job, true love, a nice place to live and a good ride. No one should dismiss the hopeful dreams of the young, but it's just not that simple, Wood says.
"We try to make decisions that make us happy, but we're not good at doing that," she says.
Well-known research shows that a sudden increase in wealth doesn't correlate to long-term gains in happiness, and people who become paralyzed due to accidents return from despair to their previous levels of happiness. Parents assume they will be bereft when the kids leave home, but happiness and marital satisfaction typically improve.
Aging too falls into that puzzling category in which reality often defies expectations.
"Why is it that when we think of age, we think about all the bad things that will happen?" says Dr. Peter Ubel, director of the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan, who has studied happiness among ill and older people. "That is one of the reasons we don't anticipate happiness in aging very well."
Until recently, psychological study focused almost solely on life's negatives: bad behavior, troubled relationships, depression and stress. Today, researchers are also studying so-called positive psychology -- those factors that help people thrive mentally and emotionally.
The study of elder happiness has been a fruitful foray in positive psychology, experts say, showing that older people are happier if they stay socially connected, pursue new experiences and do things that make them feel useful.
Young can benefit tooSuch research offers lessons for younger people as well. Teaching adolescents and young adults about the joys of volunteer work and community service may pry them from the self-centeredness that contemporary society reinforces, Emmons says.
"We live in a culture where people expect certain entitlements; 'I'm owed these things,' or 'I deserve these things,' " Emmons says. "It goes against the spirit of having a sense of purpose and being useful."
Similarly, teaching a child to count his or her blessings might place that child on an elevated happiness trajectory that persists throughout life, he suggests.
The rare younger people who experience the rich happiness common to their elders may be those who have recovered from life-threatening illness or addiction, Carstensen says. She cites research that shows people often feel differently about their lives after surviving a serious illness. They have come face-to-face with the "shrinking time horizon" that older people routinely live with.
"As people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they tend to put more value on it," she says. "There is something about recognizing our own mortality."
Combining the mental shrewdness of youth with the ability to savor life might be a successful recipe for contented living -- whatever one's age.
"If only younger people could step out of themselves and focus on the positive and realize life is fragile and life is valuable," Carstensen says. "And if older people could think about the future and worry a little bit more, that's probably good."
For example, elderly people may be too trusting. They are the most likely to be victims of financial scams, and they may make bad healthcare or financial decisions because they fail to think critically through the pros and cons of a situation.
Freedom to grow oldElders will probably always have the last laugh, Carstensen says. Young people typically don't have the freedom to be as choosy about their activities and relationships. They have to show deference to the professor, please the boss, network with business acquaintances, discipline the toddler and beg the banker for a mortgage.
"That is what goes on in youth," she says. "Younger people have to prepare for a long, nebulous future. That is anxiety-producing. I'm not sure it would be adaptive for young people to say, 'I'm not going to worry about the future,' because you do have to worry about the future.' "
As people age, they are gradually relieved of the burden of planning for the future, she notes.
In the words of the psychologically astute British poet Robert Browning: "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made."
More information, news and research on happiness and aging can be found at these sites:
- Stanford Center on Longevity
- University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center
- University of Michigan Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine
- American Psychological Assn.