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Aging And Happiness: Why People May Be Happier As They Age

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"Every age has its happiness and troubles," famous French uber-centenarian Jeanne Calment once said. And every age, quite literally, looks at happiness and troubles in different ways. For that nugget of wisdom, we can tip our hats to Derek Isaacowitz.

In the early 90s, Isaacowitz worked as a research assistant to Laura Carstensen while pursuing undergraduate studies at Stanford University. Carstensen is a renowned field expert in the study of aging who's forged significant new ground in the link between aging and happiness. As she writes in her book "A Long Bright Future," one of the biggest myths about aging is that older people are unhappy and lonely. "I've spent the last thirty years investigating the psychology of aging," Carstensen writes, " and my research consistently shows that, in terms of emotion, the best years come late in life. Older people as a group suffer less from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than their younger counterparts."

Those who think that happiness flows from the fountain of youth would be well advised, in other words, to think again. Carstensen, who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, adds that older people experience fewer negative emotions and manage them better than people in their 20s and 30s. When negative feelings do arise, she adds, "they don't linger the way they do in the young. Many people, even social scientists, are shocked by these findings."

One of those people was Isaacowitz, who went on to become a maverick himself in the field of behavioral and social gerontology. Currently a professor of psychology and director of the Lifespan Emotional Development Lab at Northeastern University, Isaacowitz has taken Carstensen's work a step further in a quest to determine exactly why, in fact, older people seem to manage negative emotions better and report higher levels of happiness than younger people. To do so, he uses eye-tracking, which follows participants' eye movements as they view evocative or disturbing images and rates their reactions with a mood dial.

Says Isaacowitz, "You might think that the person who looks at the most upsetting part of an image is going to be the most upset," -- in one case, participants were shown an image of a cow being beheaded ("it's pretty bloody," Isaacowitz adds) -- "but it turns out that it doesn't work that way. It varies as a function of age. Older people do tend to look less overall at the most upsetting part of the stimuli we put on computers -- and that does relate to reported happiness for some of the subjects. Whereas for the younger subjects, generally, we find that the more they're looking at upsetting material, the better they end up feeling."

One interpretation of this curiosity, Isaacowitz suggests, is that young people are "looking at the unpleasant parts and crafting a story that will help them understand the story in a way that's less upsetting to them. Older people short circuit that by not looking at it as much."

Isaacowitz attributes this discrepancy not so much to the emotional wherewithal of a generation bred on shows like "Fear Factor" and more on "different regulatory strategies" between the two age groups. Why exactly these strategies differ is open to conjecture, but one educated guess is that over time, people's perspectives about life change -- and these changes are subtly expressed in how we literally view things.

"We have a lot of discretion and flexibility in what we look at," Isaacowitz qualifies. "And it's not that older people are closing their eyes. It's not that they don't look at the bad stuff; they just look at it less. Maybe young people are looking too long at the negative material, more than they need to. Older people might know when enough is enough. We have this idea that if you look less at something, then you're not attending to it enough or processing it enough, but here's the idea that less is enough. Less is okay. Less can be good."

The notion that less can be good certainly sinks in with age, when we're more interested in shedding baggage than acquiring it. "It could be," Isaacowitz posits, "that older people are less interested in upsetting things because they've experienced more in life." But it could also be that when we have more lived experience behind us than in front of us, our sense of time and what's important radically shifts.

This dovetails back to Carstensen's research, which suggests that the older we get, the more we live in the moment and the less we care about social pressures that had a powerful sway over us in our youth. "As we age," she writes, "we sense the clock winding down and our attention shifts to savoring the time that is left, focusing ... on depth of experience, closeness, a smaller set of goals, and a highly selected group of loved ones. This change in perspective seems to bring with it a new way of evaluating what is worth one's time, attention, worry, or wrath." It also brings with it, clearly, a new way of looking at life.