Older and Happier

Older and Happier

It’s often an unfair stereotype that the elderly are “grumpy”.  Not only is it unfair, it’s also not true, in fact the reality is that on average we get happier as we get older.  Mark and I talked about this research on his Radio Live Sunday show this week.  (Click here to listen to the interview)

Quite a large body of data now shows that as we age we all get better at regulating our emotions.  But how is it that as we age we get happier? Is it something that happens to us all as we age?

“The researchers found that for all generations, negative affect decreased with age. In other words, as people got older, they got less negative. Positive affect stayed fairly stable across time, with a small decrease for the oldest people in the study. However, older participants who were more outgoing were less likely to show a drop in positive affect.” (Click here for the rest of the article)

What the studies seem to show is that we all tend to focus less on the negative, and get better at switching our attention away from the negative, as we age.  Experiments test how well people can recall positive, neutral and negative images.

“Older adults (ages 65-80) recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. In that older group, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults (ages 18-29 and 41-53) remembered the negative pictures better. What’s more, although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images, only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.”  (Click here for the rest of the article)

The universality of the response is so strong that some have wondered if it might be biological in nature.  And interestingly, it seems that higher apes show a similar pattern.  Overall humans tend to be happier when they’re younger, less happy through their adolescence and earlier adulthood, and happier again in their older age.  This “U” shaped curve also holds true for primates, leading some to suggest that perhaps we need the relative “negativity” in our younger ages to learn from experience, and our mistakes that we are likely to make at this age.

Either way, nature or nurture, the good news is regardless of your own disposition you should expect your outlook to get more positive as you age.  Despite the hair loss, back pain, teenage children and creaky knees, it does get easier.





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