For centuries, sages have alluded to a richness in life's later years that is lost on the young. But only in the last decade have researchers begun to measure happiness across the life span and, in doing so, try to understand why older people tend to be so content.
The explanation doesn't appear to be biological -- some chemical in the brain that mellows us just when all those plump neurons needed for thinking and memory are shriveling up. Rather, most scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.
"When you have that disaster at 10 in the morning, you can deal with it better when you're older," says Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at Scripps College in Claremont. "With people in their 20s, it throws them off. They experience more emotion, and it's more intense emotion."
In a study published in September in Psychological Science, Wood and her collaborator, neuroscientist Michael Kisley of the University of Colorado, recorded the brain activity of 63 adults, ranging in age, who were shown a series of negative and positive images, such as dead animals or a bowl of ice cream. Older adults were about 30% less reactive to the negative images compared with the younger adults.
Other studies have found similar results -- that older people experience negative emotion less often and recover from it more quickly. The insult that has your blood boiling for three days at age 20 may not even register a spike in blood pressure at age 60. And despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that anyone with gray hair has likely experienced his or her fair share of suffering, older folks are also adept at transcending bad memories.
"What we see is a real difference in how negative information is processed by the brain," Wood says. "When we talk about maturity or wisdom, we're talking about that ability to integrate negative emotion or cognitive information; being able to weigh it and not find it so disruptive."
Why people regulate their emotions better as they age may be due in part to school-of-hard-knocks experience. Eventually they learn the world will not end when the car breaks down or the child gets strep throat. The later stages of life also offer more opportunities to actively avoid those parts that are stressful or upsetting, Wood says.
"You can surround yourself with less negative people and events," she says. "At a certain point, you're established in your career. You don't have to put up with that annoying boss any more. You can structure your life the way you want to."
Influence of time
One of the first researchers to discover that older people tend to be happier thinks there's another reason for this greater emotional control. It's linked to a person's sense of time. Older people are aware that life doesn't last forever -- and, with a finite amount of time ahead, they think it should be well spent.
In a study at Stanford University's Center on Longevity, psychologist Laura Carstensen showed that people who perceived their future time as limited had goals that were emotionally meaningful. People who perceived their futures as open-ended had goals that tended to be knowledge-related. Carstensen concluded that, as people age, they encounter "shrinking time horizons." With less time left, people tend to focus on the now. The 2002 study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
"As people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they tend to put more value on it," she says.
Younger people may anticipate that the older years will be bleak because the body fails and the mind is aware that time is running out. But older people typically aren't depressed by that.
"The paradox of aging is that there is this decline in physical well-being and cognitive status and yet an increase in psychological well-being," Carstensen says. "We [colleagues in her laboratory] don't think of that as a paradox, of course, because it's the decline that reminds people that life will not go on forever."
With an eye on the clock, older people are more selective about their activities and relationships, Wood says. The happiest find ways to feel useful, giving them a sense of purpose and making their time feel meaningful. The happiest tend to say they enjoy serving others in some capacity.
"I think of old age as the richest form of emotional satisfaction that is possible," Carstensen says. "There are still positive emotions, but there is also an understanding and appreciation that there is an ending around the corner."