Peace. Contentment. Happiness. This wasn't what Allan Schwartz expected he would find in his late 60s, as he left middle age behind. Like many people, he expected the transition into older age to be difficult; instead it has been liberating, emotionally.
"I've noticed a distinct change from when I was younger," said Schwartz, 68, who resides in Port Charlotte, Fla., and Boulder, Colo., with his wife of 42 years. "Then, I was quicker to anger, more defensive, much more anxious. Now, I have a greater sense of inner peace. I don't feel the need to prove anything to anyone."
A growing body of research finds that far from being a dark time, older age is a vibrant period emotionally for many people, a time of turning away from fears and frustrations and attending to what makes life meaningful, such as satisfying hobbies and friends.
Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University's Center on Longevity, has spent most of her career studying this so-called paradox of aging: the counterintuitive finding that older people often report feeling happier — more stable, better adapted — even as their cognitive faculties and physical health decline.
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Her explanation for the phenomenon is "socioemotional selectivity theory." As we age and realize that the time left to us is limited, our priorities change, Carstensen postulates. Instead of focusing on expanding our horizons and taking on challenges — adaptive tasks for younger adults — we focus on "what matters most right now: people who are close, places or endeavors that mean a lot to us," she says.
That is the unexpected "silver lining of aging," she says. "When you live in the now, that's good for your mental health and your emotional well-being. You see more clearly what's important and invest in what's important."
And what is important, in the end, are experiences rich with positive emotion.
Several studies support the theory, providing evidence that healthy older adults respond differently to negative stimuli than younger adults. (Of course, ill health or the loss of a spouse or cherished friends can throw people into an emotional tailspin that may color their later years.)
A 2003 report by Carstensen and colleagues in Psychological Science found that seniors paid less attention to photos of people's faces when expressions were angry or sad. Similarly, in a 2007 study in Aging & Mental Health, older adults reported being unhappy less often in diaries than younger people.
In new research, Bob Knight, associate dean of the Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, has discovered that the perception of time is key to this so-called "positivity effect." When seniors were asked to imagine having a much longer time to live, "they acted more like young adults and saw more negative emotions in the faces" shown, he says, describing as-yet unpublished results.
Other studies suggest that older adults have better coping skills because of their life experience. "What we think is that people learn over time that tuning out, avoiding problems, and daydreaming don't work so they quit doing it," Knight said. Changes in the structure of the brain may also contribute to suppressing negativity and improving emotional regulation, other researchers propose.
As a young man, Schwartz said he felt it was his fault when bad things happened. By contrast, he has learned with experience, "It's not about me, it's life. Lousy things happen to everybody.
"It's not pie in the sky: You still get thrown curveballs. It's just, I don't dwell on things the way I used to. I'm better able to move on," Schwartz says.
What are the practical implications of this line of research? Joseph Mikels, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University and DePaul University, has discovered that older adults rely more heavily on gut emotional responses in making decisions than on reasoned, detailed analysis. It makes sense, given seniors' intact emotional capacities and diminished cognitive capacities, Mikels notes.
In a report published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology earlier this year, Mikels demonstrated that young adults were adept at making health-care choices using either analysis or intuition but older adults faltered when making decisions based on reasoning alone.
Mikels' conclusion? "Structuring decisions that require older people to review a lot of details and pay a lot of attention to fine print doesn't appear optimal," he says. "Older people are more inclined to go with their hearts than with their heads, and paying attention to that counts."