Stanford study shows getting older leads to emotional stability, happiness

October 27, 2010

It's a prediction often met with worry: In 20 years, there will be more Americans over 60 than under 15. Some fear that will mean an aging society with an increasing number of decrepit, impaired people and fewer youngsters to care for them while also keeping the country's productivity going.

The concerns are valid, but a new Stanford study shows there's a silver lining to the graying of our nation. As we grow older, we tend to become more emotionally stable. And that translates into longer, more productive lives that offer more benefits than problems, said Laura Carstensen, the study's lead author.

"As people age, they're more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems," said Carstensen, a 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."

Between 1993 and 2005, Carstensen and her colleagues tracked about 180 Americans between the ages of 18 and 94. Over the years, some participants died and others aged out of the younger groups, so additional participants were included.

For one week every five years, the study participants carried pagers and were required to immediately respond to a series of questions whenever the devices buzzed. The periodic quizzes were intended to chart how happy, satisfied and comfortable they were at any given time.

Carstensen's study - which was published online Monday in the journal Psychology and Aging - was coauthored by postdoctoral fellows Bulent Turan and Susanne Scheibe as well as Stanford doctoral students and researchers at Pennsylvania State, Northwestern, the University of Virginia and the University of California's campuses in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

While previous research has established a correlation between aging and happiness, Carstensen's study is the first to track the same people over a long period of time to examine how they changed.

The undertaking was an effort to answer questions asked over and over again by social scientists: Are seniors today who say they're happy simply part of a socioeconomic era that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people - whether born and reared in boom times or busts - have it within themselves to reach their golden years with a smile? The answer has important implications for future aging societies.

"Our findings suggest that it doesn't matter when you were born," Carstensen said. "In general, people get happier as they get older."

Over the years, the older subjects reported having fewer negative emotions and more positive ones compared to their younger days. But even with the good outweighing the bad, older people were inclined to report a mix of 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 (who is 56 and says she's happier now than she was a few decades ago) attributes the change in older people to her theory of "socio-emotional selectivity" - a scientific way of saying that people invest in what's most important to them when time is limited.

While teenagers and young adults experience more frustration, anxiety and disappointment over things like test scores, career goals and finding a soul mate, older people typically have made their peace with life's accomplishments and failures. In other words, they have less ambiguity to stress about.

"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 what, then, do we make of the "grumpy old man" stereotype?

"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."
-end-


Stanford University

Related Aging Articles from Brightsurf:

Surprises in 'active' aging
Aging is a process that affects not only living beings.

Aging-US: 'From Causes of Aging to Death from COVID-19' by Mikhail V. Blagosklonny
Aging-US recently published ''From Causes of Aging to Death from COVID-19'' by Blagosklonny et al. which reported that COVID-19 is not deadly early in life, but mortality increases exponentially with age - which is the strongest predictor of mortality.

Understanding the effect of aging on the genome
EPFL scientists have measured the molecular footprint that aging leaves on various mouse and human tissues.

Muscle aging: Stronger for longer
With life expectancy increasing, age-related diseases are also on the rise, including sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass due to aging.

Aging memories may not be 'worse, 'just 'different'
A study from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences adds nuance to the idea that an aging memory is a poor one and finds a potential correlation between the way people process the boundaries of events and episodic memory.

A new biomarker for the aging brain
Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Biosystems Dynamics Research (BDR) in Japan have identified changes in the aging brain related to blood circulation.

Scientists invented an aging vaccine
A new way to prevent autoimmune diseases associated with aging like atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease was described in the article.

The first roadmap for ovarian aging
Infertility likely stems from age-related decline of the ovaries, but the molecular mechanisms that lead to this decline have been unclear.

Researchers discover new cause of cell aging
New research from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering could be key to our understanding of how the aging process works.

Deep Aging Clocks: The emergence of AI-based biomarkers of aging and longevity
The advent of deep biomarkers of aging, longevity and mortality presents a range of non-obvious applications.

Read More: Aging News and Aging Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.