Laura Carstensen: Older people are happier
In the 20th century we added an unprecedented number of years to our lifespans, but is the quality of life as good? Surprisingly, yes! Psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates that as people get older they become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world.
Laura Carstensen - Psychologist
Laura Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and has extensively studied the effects on wellbeing of extended lifetimes. Full bio
People are living longer
and societies are getting grayer.
You hear about it all the time.
You read about it in your newspapers.
You hear about it on your television sets.
Sometimes I'm concerned
that we hear about it so much
that we've come to accept longer lives
with a kind of a complacency,
But make no mistake,
longer lives can
and, I believe, will
improve quality of life
at all ages.
Now to put this in perspective,
let me just zoom out for a minute.
More years were added
to average life expectancy
in the 20th century
than all years added
across all prior millennia
of human evolution combined.
In the blink of an eye,
we nearly doubled the length of time
that we're living.
So if you ever feel like you don't have this aging thing quite pegged,
don't kick yourself.
It's brand new.
And because fertility rates fell
across that very same period
that life expectancy was going up,
that has always represented the distribution of age in the population,
with many young ones at the bottom
winnowed to a tiny peak of older people
who make it and survive to old age
is being reshaped
into a rectangle.
And now, if you're the kind of person
who can get chills from population statistics,
these are the ones that should do it.
Because what that means
is that for the first time in the history of the species,
the majority of babies born
in the Developed World
are having the opportunity
to grow old.
How did this happen?
Well we're no genetically hardier than our ancestors were
10,000 years ago.
This increase in life expectancy
is the remarkable product of culture --
that holds science and technology
and wide-scale changes in behavior
that improve health and well-being.
Through cultural changes,
largely eliminated early death
so that people can now live out their full lives.
Now there are problems associated with aging --
diseases, poverty, loss of social status.
It's hardly time to rest on our laurels.
But the more we learn about aging,
the clearer it becomes
that a sweeping downward course
is grossly inaccurate.
Aging brings some rather remarkable improvements --
increased knowledge, expertise --
and emotional aspects of life improve.
older people are happy.
They're happier than middle-aged people,
and younger people certainly.
Study after study
is coming to the same conclusion.
The CDC recently conducted a survey
where they asked respondents simply to tell them
whether they experienced significant psychological distress
in the previous week.
And fewer older people answered affirmatively to that question
than middle-aged people,
and younger people as well.
And a recent Gallup poll
how much stress and worry and anger
they had experienced the previous day.
And stress, worry, anger
all decrease with age.
Now social scientists call this the paradox of aging.
After all, aging is not a piece of cake.
So we've asked all sorts of questions
to see if we could undo this finding.
We've asked whether it may be
that the current generations of older people
are and always have been
the greatest generations.
That is that younger people today
may not typically experience these improvements
as they grow older.
well maybe older people are just trying to put a positive spin
on an otherwise depressing existence.
But the more we've tried to disavow this finding,
the more evidence we find
to support it.
Years ago, my colleagues and I embarked on a study
where we followed the same group of people over a 10-year period.
Originally the sample was aged 18 to 94.
And we studied whether and how their emotional experiences changed
as they grew older.
Our participants would carry electronic pagers
for a week at a time,
and we'd page them throughout the day and evenings at random times.
And every time we paged them
we'd ask them to answer several questions --
On a one to seven scale, how happy are you right now?
How sad are you right now?
How frustrated are you right now? --
so that we could get a sense
of the kinds of emotions and feelings they were having
in their day-to-day lives.
And using this intense study
we find that it's not one particular generation
that's doing better than the others,
but the same individuals over time
come to report relatively greater
Now you see this slight downturn
at very advanced ages.
And there is a slight downturn.
But at no point does it return
to the levels we see
in early adulthood.
Now it's really too simplistic
to say that older people are "happy."
In our study, they are more positive,
but they're also more likely than younger people
to experience mixed emotions --
sadness at the same time you experience happiness;
you know, that tear in the eye
when you're smiling at a friend.
And other research has shown
that older people seem to engage with sadness
They're more accepting of sadness than younger people are.
And we suspect that this may help to explain
why older people are better than younger people
at solving hotly-charged emotional conflicts and debates.
Older people can view injustice
but not despair.
And all things being equal,
older people direct their cognitive resources,
like attention and memory,
to positive information more than negative.
If we show older, middle-aged, younger people images,
like the ones you see on the screen,
and we later ask them
to recall all the images that they can,
older people, but not younger people,
remember more positive images
than negative images.
We've asked older and younger people
to view faces in laboratory studies,
some frowning, some smiling.
Older people look toward the smiling faces
and away from the frowning, angry faces.
In day-to-day life,
this translates into greater enjoyment
But as social scientists, we continue to ask
about possible alternatives.
We've said, well maybe older people
report more positive emotions
because they're cognitively impaired.
We've said, could it be
that positive emotions are simply easier to process than negative emotions,
and so you switch to the positive emotions?
Maybe our neural centers in our brain
are degraded such
that we're unable to process negative emotions anymore.
But that's not the case.
The most mentally sharp older adults
are the ones who show this positivity effect the most.
And under conditions where it really matters,
older people do process the negative information
just as well as the positive information.
So how can this be?
Well in our research,
we've found that these changes
are grounded fundamentally
in the uniquely human ability to monitor time --
not just clock time and calendar time,
And if there's a paradox of aging,
it's that recognizing that we won't live forever
changes our perspective on life
in positive ways.
When time horizons are long and nebulous,
as they typically are in youth,
people are constantly preparing,
trying to soak up all the information they possibly can,
taking risks, exploring.
We might spend time with people we don't even like
because it's somehow interesting.
We might learn something unexpected.
We go on blind dates.
You know, after all,
if it doesn't work out, there's always tomorrow.
People over 50
don't go on blind dates.
As we age,
our time horizons grow shorter
and our goals change.
When we recognize that we don't have all the time in the world,
we see our priorities most clearly.
We take less notice of trivial matters.
We savor life.
We're more appreciative,
more open to reconciliation.
We invest in more emotionally important parts of life,
and life gets better,
so we're happier day-to-day.
But that same shift in perspective
leads us to have less tolerance than ever
there will be more people in the United States
over the age of 60
than under 15.
What will happen to societies
that are top-heavy with older people?
The numbers won't determine
If we invest in science and technology
and find solutions for the real problems
that older people face
and we capitalize
on the very real strengths
of older people,
then added years of life
can dramatically improve quality of life
at all ages.
Societies with millions
of talented, emotionally stable citizens
who are healthier and better educated
than any generations before them,
armed with knowledge
about the practical matters of life
to solve the big issues
can be better societies
than we have ever known.
My father, who is 92,
likes to say,
"Let's stop talking only about
how to save the old folks
and start talking about
how to get them to save us all."
About the speaker:Laura Carstensen - Psychologist
Laura Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and has extensively studied the effects on wellbeing of extended lifetimes.
Why you should listen
More profile about the speaker
Dr. Carstensen is Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at Stanford University, where she is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, which explores innovative ways to solve the problems of people over 50 and improve the well-being of people of all ages. She is best known in academia for socioemotional selectivity theory, a life-span theory of motivation. She is also the author of A Long Bright Future: An Action Plan for a Lifetime of Happiness, Health, and Financial Security — an updated edition will be released in 2011.
Laura Carstensen | Speaker | TED.com