Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Is That Geezer Smiling?

[*** Warning***  This is another in my series of Geezerhood blogs. Instead of reading this you may want to do something more fun, like checking your investment portfolio.  Related blogs to avoid are given at the end.]

There are a lot of negative stereotypes about aging.  One of them is that most older people suffer from a variety of negative emotions, like depression, remorse, and despair as they confront the problems and challenges of aging. Old people are just not happy campers.

Like many stereotypes, this one sounds reasonable. For example, depression and sadness seem like a natural reaction to the loss of friends and family, declining physical and mental abilities, and to the contemplation of one's unfulfilled goals and dreams.  The stereotype of the sad geezer is especially strong among young people, but even older people seem to share this pessimistic view (Hummert, et. al,1994).  In fact, just reading this is making me a bit depressed.

However, there is ample empirical evidence that even though it sounds reasonable, the stereotype is wrong, and that older people report generally higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than do younger people (Mroczek, & Kolarz, 1998; Myers & Diener, 1995;  Charles et al., 2001).  According to Laura Carstensen, a renowned researcher on aging at Stanford University, the fact that emotional well-being is actually maintained and in some ways even improves across adulthood " among the most surprising findings about human aging to emerge in recent years" (Carstensen et. al., 2011, p. 21).

A cynic (probably someone young) might argue that this is just another symptom of the cognitive decline of Geezerhood -- no longer in touch with reality, the oldsters are in denial and just assess everything as positive. However, Carstensen's research indicates that older people in fact exhibit both positive and negative emotions to situations, often in a more complex way than younger people do:  " in meaningful activities under time-limited conditions elicit richly complex emotional experiences, such as gratitude accompanied by a sense of fragility and happiness tinged with sadness" (Carstensen et. al, 2011).

One explanation of these changes in emotional well-being across the life span is given by Carstensen's "Socioemotional Selectivity" theory of aging, which proposes that we structure our life goals partly on the basis of how relevant they are to the time we have left:
The central change in adulthood is a shift in the salience of social goals. Younger adults, having much to learn and relatively long futures for which to prepare, are motivated by the pursuit of knowledge—even when this requires that emotional well-being be suppressed. For older adults, the reverse trend appears. Facing relatively shorter futures and having already accrued considerable knowledge about others, older adults prioritize emotional goals because they are realized in the moment of contact rather than banked for some nebulous future time.
       The theory stresses that age does not entail the relentless pursuit of happiness but rather the satisfaction of emotionally meaningful goals, which entails far more than simply feeling good. Finding meaning in existing relationships, even conflictual ones, emerges as a central task in later life. (Carstensen et. al., 2000, p. 645)
So, the picture that emerges is that older people are happier overall, but also experience negative emotions in meaningful ways. I would add to Carstensen's example of relational goals a more general openness to experiencing all life events in an emotionally meaningful way, including those we probably dismissed as insignificant when we were younger.

Our young cynic, clutching at straws now, might point out that the research showing that geezers are happier than young people is "cross-sectional" in design and that so it really hasn't demonstrated that people's emotional well-being improves as they age.  It could be that the current crop of old people have always been happy, perhaps because they grew up in simpler, more supportive times.

A recent longitudinal study by Carstensen (Carstensen et al., 2011) has eliminated this possible alternative explanation by following the same group of people over a 15-year period.  The results showed that as participants in the study aged their emotional well-being improved, thus supporting the earlier cross-sectional conclusion .

So, why is that Geezer smiling?  You'll find out when you're older.

Related Blogs and References:

Jogging the Memory of a Geezer
Embracing Your Inner Geezer
How to Compress Your Morbidity
The Power of Negative Thinking
Thoughts for a New Year
So, What Do You Do All Day?

Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Mayr, U., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2000). Emotional experience in everyday life across the adult life span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 644–655.

Carstensen, L. L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., Brooks, K. P., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2011). Emotional Experience Improves With Age: Evidence Based on  Over 10 Years of Experience Sampling. Psychology and Aging, 26, 21–33
Charles, S. T., Reynolds, C. A., & Gatz, M. (2001). Age-related differences and change in positive and negative affect over 23 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 136–151.

Mroczek, D. K., & Kolarz, C. M. (1998). The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1333–1349.

Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6, 10–19.

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