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It seems all those birthdays may be making you happy

According to 'positive psychology,' we get less neurotic as we age and focus more on quality of life. Emotional stability does have its perks

July 16, 2007|Judy Foreman | Special to The Times

Some things actually get better with age, and emotional stability appears to be one of them. It says so right in the authoritative Journal of Neuroscience.

Ever since Freud, psychologists have focused almost exclusively on misery -- our fears, our depressions, sadness, anger, hostility, aggression, you name it. Now, thank goodness, the young discipline of "positive psychology" is gaining ground as psychologists and neuroscientists try to figure out what makes people happy.

One of the most provocative studies in this new field was published last summer in the neuroscience journal. Australian researchers studied 242 healthy people ages 12 to 79. The subjects were shown pictures of fearful faces and happy faces, while their brain responses were tracked with functional MRI scans and EEGs, or electroencephalograms, which show the regions of the brain active at any given moment. The findings suggest that people become less neurotic, more able to control fear and more emotionally stable as they age, an observation that fits with other data.

Specifically, the Australian team found that the amygdala -- a deep brain center for processing raw feelings, especially fear -- becomes less reactive to fearful stimuli between the middle and older years, while a higher brain center, the medial prefrontal cortex, which governs planning and judgment, gets more active during that same period.

This suggests that healthy, older people "are less bothered by things. They are more in control of their reactions to fear," said Dr. Andrew Leuchter, director of the laboratory of brain, behavior and pharmacology at UCLA.

The findings also suggest that aging is not only linked to "putting the brakes on" negative emotions, but also to "releasing the brakes" on positive emotions, said Lea Williams, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney in Australia and lead author of the study. These findings, she said in an e-mail, "are consistent with people reporting that they focus more on quality of life as they get older. Our many experiences do impact our emotional brain systems in a way that helps attain a better sense of comfort with oneself and the world."

The neuroscience data fits with some epidemiological data. A 2004 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that young people report more sad, blue or depressed days per month than older people -- 3.4 per month for 20- to 24-year-olds, versus just over two days for people 65 to 74.

Another government study, the 2003 National Health Interview Survey, asked people how often they felt sad, hopeless, worthless or that everything was an effort. The least sad were people ages 65 to 74. Only 2.6% of this group said they felt sad all or most of the time, in contrast with 3% of the 18- to 44-year-olds. But after age 75, it's not clear whether the happy trend continues -- and more research is needed.

The idea that many people do indeed mellow with age makes sense to Dr. George Vaillant, a senior psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, who for decades has studied the way people change over the years.

Older people "modulate emotion better than the young, which lets them be more 'Buddhist' and thus happier because their frontal lobes are better connected to their limbic system," the deeper region of the brain where emotions are processed, wrote Vaillant, the author of "Aging Well," in an e-mail.

The general trend toward greater happiness with age also makes sense to Harvard's chief happiness guru, Tal Ben-Shahar. Ben-Shahar, who taught one of Harvard College's most popular courses, "Positive Psychology," said in an e-mail interview that "one of the reasons why we are happier with age is that we simplify our lives. We focus on what's really important to us, while discarding things that are less personally meaningful.

"When we experience negative emotions, we are more accepting and also are secure in the knowledge that 'this, too, shall pass,' " Ben-Shahar said.

Evolution may also play a role in helping people become less fearful and more sanguine with age, said biological anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University.

"A young person has everything to look forward to and everything to gain or lose," she said. It makes sense for younger people to watch out for negative things that might kill them, while older people who have already succeeded in passing on their genes have less to fear, she said. "It's now adaptive for them to be less vigilant about all the exigencies of life, to stay calm and keep others calm."

Even though the odds are good that you will get happier as you age, there's no need to wait. Younger people, like those in Ben-Shahar's Harvard classes, can learn the basic skills. The first, he said, is to give yourself permission to feel negative emotions such as sadness, fear or anxiety. The sooner you do, the faster these feelings will pass.

It's also key, he said, to engage regularly in activities that you find pleasurable and meaningful. Remember too that happiness is mostly "dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the status of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined by what we choose to focus on and by our interpretation of external events."

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