When you imagine a happy adult, the first picture that pops
to mind might be a 25-year-old basking in the glow of youth, health, and
beauty. Yet research suggests that a beaming 65-year-old might be a more
In study after study, older adults report having more positive
emotions and fewer negative ones than younger adults do. At first blush, that might
seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, the older we get, the more losses and
disappointments we’ve racked up, and the more likely we are to have a chronic disease
or disabling condition.
Many researchers believe that decades of practice have taught
older adults crucial skills that help them manage their emotions for the better.
However, a recent article in Perspectives
on Psychological Science points out that the relationship between age
and happiness is complex and still not well understood.
For example, do older adults choose to have sunnier thoughts,
which in turn lead to happier feelings? Or are they forced into simpler,
happier thinking by age-related declines in mental sharpness? Researchers are
still sorting out all the reasons for an age gap in happiness. Here’s what they’ve
discovered so far about differences in how older adults tend to view the world,
compared to their younger counterparts.
Making Happiness a
Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen developed one influential explanation, called socioemotional selectivity theory. According to this theory, older people’s realization that they
don’t have endless time left leads them to be more selective about how they
spend it. As a result, they may invest more time and energy in activities that
they know will be emotionally rewarding.
For instance, older adults may prune their social circle, cutting
back on unsatisfying relationships to focus on rewarding ones. But selectivity also
has its downside: seniors may be less willing give new, untested relationships a
Many studies have found that older adults are biased
toward positive over negative information when it comes to attention and memory.
Shown pictures of faces or scenarios, for example, they tend to focus on and
remember the happier ones more. Psychologists refer to this as the positivity
Finally, the happiest older adults may have learned how to
cut themselves some slack. One recent study in Health Psychology followed 135 people over age 60 for six years.
When confronted with declining ability to do everyday activities, those who
were able to give up unattainable
goals were less likely to become depressed.
Of course, there are innumerable factors besides age that
affect individual happiness. Clearly, all 60-year-olds aren’t contented, just
as all 20-year-olds aren’t malcontents. But when it comes to knowing how to
make yourself happy, having a lifetime of experience behind you may offer a