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I Am Old But I Am Happy: Why Happiness And Emotional Stability Might Improve With Age

ScienceDaily (Oct. 28, 2010) — It’s a prediction often met with worry: In 20 years, there will be more Americans over 60 than under 15. Some fear that will mean an aging society with an increasing number of decrepit, impaired people and fewer youngsters to care for them while also keeping the country’s productivity going.

The concerns are valid, but a new Stanford study shows there’s a silver lining to the graying of our nation. As we grow older, we tend to become more emotionally stable. And that translates into longer, more productive lives that offer more benefits than problems, said Laura Carstensen, the study’s lead author.

“As people age, they’re more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems,” said Carstensen, a psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We may be seeing a larger group of people who can get along with a greater number of people. They care more and are more compassionate about problems, and that may lead to a more stable world.”

Between 1993 and 2005, Carstensen and her colleagues tracked about 180 Americans between the ages of 18 and 94. Over the years, some participants died and others aged out of the younger groups, so additional participants were included.

For one week every five years, the study participants carried pagers and were required to immediately respond to a series of questions whenever the devices buzzed. The periodic quizzes were intended to chart how happy, satisfied and comfortable they were at any given time.

Carstensen’s study — which was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging — was coauthored by postdoctoral fellows Bulent Turan and Susanne Scheibe as well as Stanford doctoral students and researchers at Pennsylvania State, Northwestern, the University of Virginia and the University of California’s campuses in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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While previous research has established a correlation between aging and happiness, Carstensen’s study is the first to track the same people over a long period of time to examine how they changed.

The undertaking was an effort to answer questions asked over and over again by social scientists: Are seniors today who say they’re happy simply part of a socioeconomic era that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people — whether born and reared in boom times or busts — have it within themselves to reach their golden years with a smile? The answer has important implications for future aging societies.

“Our findings suggest that it doesn’t matter when you were born,” Carstensen said. “In general, people get happier as they get older.”

Over the years, the older subjects reported having fewer negative emotions and more positive ones compared with their younger days. But even with the good outweighing the bad, older people were inclined to report a mix of positive and negative emotions more often than younger test subjects.

“As people get older, they’re more aware of mortality,” Carstensen said. “So when they see or experience moments of wonderful things, that often comes with the realization that life is fragile and will come to an end. But that’s a good thing. It’s a signal of strong emotional health and balance.”

Carstensen (who is 56 and says she’s happier now than she was a few decades ago) attributes the change in older people to her theory of “socio-emotional selectivity” — a scientific way of saying that people invest in what’s most important to them when time is limited.

While teenagers and young adults experience more frustration, anxiety and disappointment over things like test scores, career goals and finding a soul mate, older people typically have made their peace with life’s accomplishments and failures. In other words, they have less ambiguity to stress about.

“This all suggests that as our society is aging, we will have a greater resource,” Carstensen said. “If people become more even-keeled as they age, older societies could be wiser and kinder societies.”

So what, then, do we make of the “grumpy old man” stereotype?

“Most of the grumpy old men out there are grumpy young men who grew old,” Carstensen said. “Aging isn’t going to turn someone grumpy into someone who’s happy-go-lucky. But most people will gradually feel better as they grow older.”

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November 4, 2010 Posted by | Age & Ageing, Identity, mood, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Only As Young Or Old As You Feel?: When Does Youth End & Old Age Start?

Source: University of Kent, UK: 15 March 2010

Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Melanie Vauclair from the School of Psychology  at the University of Kent will present findings from the European Social Survey’s research project ‘Attitudes to Age in the UK and Europe’ during an event at City University, London, on Monday 15 March.

Titled What do the British think about… ageism, political institutions and welfare?, this Economic and Social Research Council  (ESRC) event will consist of an information seminar and an online demonstration of how to access and use the European Social Survey (ESS) data archive, currently comprising 21 European countries and more than 40,000 respondents.

With a steadily growing proportion of older people in the UK and Europe, the 2008 ESS included a module that examined how people perceive and feel about their own and other age groups.

Professor Abrams explained: ‘The survey showed that age prejudice – being treated as ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ – is perceived to be a serious or very serious issue by 63 per cent of respondents, so it is obviously important to know what these age labels mean to people’. To find out, the survey asked when does ‘youth’ end and ‘old age’ begin? For the UK, the average response to this question was that youth ends at the age of 35 and old age begins at 58.

However, the survey also revealed that people’s judgements depend strongly on the ‘age of the beholder’. On average, the youngest respondents (15 to 24-year old) judged that youth ends at 28 and old age starts at 54, whereas the oldest age group (80 and older) judged that youth ends at 42 and old age starts at 67.

In the UK, there is a gap of almost 40 years between young people’s judgement of the end of youth and older people’s judgement of the beginning of old age. However, more startlingly, there is a gap of only 12 years between older people’s judgement of the end of youth and younger people’s judgement of the start of old age.

In general, men regarded the end of youth and start of old age to begin two years earlier than women did.

There were also large differences between European countries. Youth was perceived to end earliest among respondents in Portugal (at the age of 29) and latest by those in Cyprus (at the age of 45). Portugal scored lowest for the belief when old age starts (at the age of 51), whereas Belgium ranked highest (at the age 64).

The findings illustrate that when people discover another person’s age, their judgement of whether that person is young or old is highly subjective and this may have important implications in influencing people’s assumptions about the person’s responsibilities, rights and capabilities.

Professor Abrams said: ‘This evidence shows that what counts as young and old is very largely down to the age of the beholder.’

Amongst other findings, the survey also showed that 28 per cent of UK respondents reported that they had been treated with prejudice because of their age in the past year and that the youngest age group were more likely to report experiences of prejudice than any other. Across the European countries in the survey, age prejudice was most widely reported in Finland (47 per cent) and least so in Cyprus and Portugal (19 per cent). The UK ranked 16 out of 21 countries in regard to this question.

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March 17, 2010 Posted by | Age & Ageing, Cognition, Education, Seniors, Social Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment