When Lillian Fowler died in an Ohio nursing home at the age of 108, her relatives were quick to comment on how cheerful she had stayed until the very end. She had played golf into her 80s, became queen of the county fair at 104 and never stopped making friends. Her niece explains that Fowler chose to be happy no matter what her situation: “She would say, ‘You need to blossom where you are planted.’”
Fowler's sunny disposition may counter our expectations for the elderly. After all, stereotypes of aging curmudgeons abound. But scientists researching longevity and aging suspect her story reflects a common pattern. Surveys and studies in developed countries around the world have given investigators a closer look at the relation between age and what psychologists call “emotional well-being”—that is, when a person consistently reports more positive than negative feelings. And by this measure, they have discovered that seniors are happier than their juniors.
In a classic 1995 study, for example, scientists at Fordham University categorized more than 32,000 Americans in age groups and found that 38 percent of seniors, aged 68 to 77, reported being “very happy,” whereas younger groups were significantly less likely to report such positive feelings. In a study this year involving more than 10,000 Danes aged 45 and older, researchers at the University of Southern Denmark found that although seniors were considerably less healthy than younger adults, they were at least as happy.
And that contentment extends to those who, like Fowler, have crossed the century mark. British centenarians, questioned for a paper published in 2012, convinced psychologists that it “felt good to be 100 years of age.” Iowa State University gerontologist Peter Martin, who has interviewed hundreds of people aged 100-plus, says: “Almost everybody I meet leaves me with a feeling that old age can be indeed a happy time.”
These findings present us with a paradox: something about old age keeps people in good spirits despite hardships and physical decline. In fact, more than a decade of research findings have revealed that most elderly adults have an unfailing knack for focusing on the positive, whether in looking back at their memories or thinking about the present moment. Multiple hypotheses have emerged to explain this so-called positivity effect—including brain changes associated with the process of aging—but increasingly experts are coming to conclude that happiness is essentially a choice that older people make every day. Seniors with healthy minds make use of powerful strategies that let them tamp down negative experiences. In a sense, then, successful aging is largely about accentuating the positive.
Looking at the bright side
As researchers have wrestled with the correlation between happiness and age, numerous hypotheses have emerged and been debunked. Through a series of studies they have confirmed that the rise in contentment cannot be explained by reduced daily stress, although admittedly, elders are less burdened by work and child care duties than younger adults are. And even though happy people often outlive gloomy types, studies suggest that the happiness seen in older people reflects a change over time rather than a consistently sunny personality. Psychologists at the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Southern California followed up with more than 2,800 people for 23 years to chart how their emotional well-being changed with age. In 2001 the results came out: the older people got, the less they experienced negative feelings. In other words, the participants were becoming happier over time.
Then, in 2004, psychologists Laura L. Carstensen and Quinn Kennedy, both then at Stanford University, and gerontologist Mara Mather, now at the University of Southern California, stumbled on a different explanation. Back in 1987, Carstensen had questioned 300 nuns about their everyday lives. A second round of interviews followed in 2001 to check how well the sisters recalled what they had experienced 14 years previously. “The oldest nuns were remembering things as being more positive than they actually had been based on their original questionnaire,” Mather says. This led the researchers to conclude that these older nuns exhibited an “age-related positivity effect,” that is, an increasing tendency to concentrate on sources of happiness while downplaying negative information.
Hundreds of experiments have since corroborated this phenomenon. In a 2012 study, for example, psychologists Derek M. Isaacowitz and YoonSun Choi, both then at Brandeis University, invited 78 young adults (aged 18 to 25) and 77 older adults (aged 60 to 92) to his laboratory. He asked them to watch videos about skin cancer. While the volunteers watched the film, which was peppered with disturbing images of scars and scenes of surgery, special gaze-tracking equipment followed the movements of their eyes. The psychologists found that the older adults tried to distract themselves from the video's negative aspects—fixing their eyes significantly less on disturbing images than did teenagers or people in their 20s.
Similar studies have discovered that when seniors are shown pictures depicting negative situations (funerals, plane crashes, angry faces), they look away faster than younger people do. On the other hand, seniors fix their gaze longer on images of good stuff: smiling kids, cute kittens, happy faces. And just like their attention, the memory of older people is skewed toward the positive.
In a 2013 study, Mather and her colleagues showed YouTube videos of angry, happy and neutral faces to 21 seniors and 20 adults younger than 38 years. The volunteers watched the clips while lying inside a functional MRI scanner so that the scientists could see how different regions of their brain were engaged during the viewing. Two days later, when asked to recall which images they had previously seen in the scanner, seniors were more likely to remember happy images than angry ones, whereas younger adults were more likely to recall negative images. In addition, those elderly participants whose memories were particularly rosy had greater activity in circuits linking the amygdala (a part of the brain responsible for regulating emotion) and the medial prefrontal cortex (a region at the front of the brain involved in decision making).
Damaged brain, happy brain?
Mather's 2013 experiment is one of many neuroimaging studies to show differences in brain activation between older and younger adults when they watch emotionally charged images—particularly in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that age-related changes in the brain may contribute to the positivity effect in old age. Another line of evidence comes from a new twist on an earlier study related to happiness across a life span. In 2008 labor economist Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England and David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College discovered the famed U-shaped curve of happiness. Their data set, encompassing half a million people in 72 countries, suggested that over the course of life, our emotional well-being follows a predictable pattern: starting high, hitting a trough in midlife, then climbing upward again in later years. In a surprising update to this finding, Oswald and his colleagues at multiple institutions found in 2012 that zookeepers see chimpanzees and orangutans exhibit more happy behaviors—such as indulging in pleasurable socializing—at the beginning and end of their lifetime. In other words, at least according to their caretakers, the well-being of apes also follows the U-shaped curve. According to Oswald, this observation hints that something biological is at work across species in the correlation between age and happiness.
More potential evidence that brain changes underlie happiness in seniors came from a 2015 study by University of Toronto psychologist Cheryl Grady and her colleagues. Grady put volunteers in an fMRI scanner and discovered that seniors with the most decline in their so-called default network of the brain—a set of interconnected regions that plays a role in introspection and memory retrieval—are more likely to think positively about themselves compared with seniors who do not show this decline. “This suggests a link between a weaker activity in this network and the positivity effect in older adults,” she says.
So what is going on? In 2011 University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo and his colleagues speculated that age-related damage in the brain—in the amygdala in particular—might contribute to well-being in later life. To support his theory, Cacioppo points to the finding that negative events or stimuli do not strongly arouse the emotions of people who have lesions on the amygdala, yet these individuals can be excited by positive things.
Yet the aging brain model cannot fully explain the positivity effect. Brain damage, after all, has negative consequences that diminish well-being. Take Alzheimer's disease. It harms both the amygdala and the default network. If aging-related declines in such regions were the main reason why seniors were so contented, one might expect Alzheimer's patients to be a particularly cheerful group. They most certainly are not. In addition, the amygdala does not sustain very much damage in normal aging. “The amygdala is the region of the brain that's centrally engaged in emotion processing. And of all the regions of the brain, it is among the best preserved until very advanced age,” Carstensen says.
Another problem for the brain-degeneration theory of happiness is that the seniors who show the strongest positivity effect are also the ones whose minds are the sharpest. In a study published last August, a group of scientists at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany checked attention to positive and negative images in 25 older and 25 younger adults and then tested their cognitive abilities. The results were clear: seniors with the most cognitive resources—that is, those who had strong mental abilities across tests—demonstrated the strongest positivity effect. Perhaps certain brain changes do contribute to this effect, but an impaired mind does not add much glow to the golden years.
The fact that seniors need cognitive resources to stay positive points to an earlier explanation for elderly people's penchant for positivity. According to socioemotional selectivity theory developed in the past 23 years by Carstensen and her colleagues, seniors are more satisfied with their lives because they want to be more satisfied with their lives. As they see the end of life approaching, they start focusing on what feels good instead of acquiring knowledge. The first clue that seniors increasingly reshape their world to make it more pleasant came from Carstensen's 1992 study in which she analyzed interviews conducted over 34 years with 50 people. She showed that the older we get, the narrower our social circle becomes because we engage mainly in relationships that we find most satisfying—and end up happier as a consequence.
More recent work extends this idea. In an experiment published in 2013 by University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Iris Mauss and her colleagues, older people were less anxious than young people when they had to give a speech in front of a camera. The difference in this case reflected the fact that the older individuals showed more acceptance of the task and were less caught up in self-conscious or self-critical emotion. In another experiment, after “accidentally” overhearing negative remarks about themselves, seniors reported less anger than did participants in their 20s or 30s.
Carstensen and other psychologists believe that this behavior reflects a change of goals. Aware of life's fragility and their own mortality, people concentrate more and more on regulating emotions to maximize good feelings in the time that is left. This tendency does not negate the possibility of changes in the brain related to aging but does place more emphasis on psychological processes. “Younger people think: ‘I have to finish school, I have to get a job.’ Older adults don't have these sorts of pressures any more. They are more focused on interpersonal relationships and basically just enjoying the rest of their lives,” says Cheryl Grady, who, like most researchers in the field, suspects both biological changes and psychological choices can explain the positivity effect.
Furthermore, this shift in priorities is not limited to the elderly. Carstensen and her colleagues have found it in young HIV sufferers and, more surprisingly, in people who start perceiving life as fragile because of major disasters, such as the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That young people may experience this change further wrinkles the theory that brain declines drive the positivity effect. It is even possible that the brain differences scientists have observed in fMRI studies may be a consequence of a person's attempts to stay positive, not the cause.
Whether people consciously choose to look on the bright side is unclear—but we do know that keeping positive in the face of negative events requires some effort. That is why cognitive resources are required—if you exhaust a person's resources or direct them toward another task, the positivity effect is lost. For example, Mather has found that when you tax the brain by distracting someone during an activity, older adults will lose their rose-colored glasses. “We did a couple of studies where we had older adults using their prefrontal cognitive resources to remember some other information, so they couldn't control what they were paying attention to, and the negative things really stood out for them just like they did for the younger adults,” Mather says.
But provided they do have the cognitive energy to expend, seniors are masters at regulating emotions. One strategy that helps to steer them toward the positive is self-distraction in the face of a negative experience. A study published in May showed that older people are skilled at thinking about something unrelated to the negative situation they encounter. An international team of researchers—based at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Tel Aviv University and Columbia University—gave 39 seniors and 38 younger participants unpleasant photographs to examine (of a burned woman, for example), then asked them to either distract themselves, by thinking about everyday chores such as grocery shopping or making coffee, or attempt to interpret the images' content in a way that gave them a positive emotional meaning (for example, imagining that a photograph of a crying baby was taken minutes after a lifesaving inoculation). Elders opted for distraction significantly more often than younger adults did.
Diverting one's gaze works as well. In Isaacowitz's skin cancer study, seniors who looked away from disturbing images felt better in the end. And if you cannot look away or distract your thoughts, you can try to accept the negative experience, which research suggests can diffuse sensations of anxiety more effectively than simply suppressing those feelings. Older people tend not to think of their emotions as inappropriate or bad. That stance contributes to well-being, too.
Using similar techniques, Carstensen, Mather and Isaacowitz have shown that younger adults can be trained to look more at the bright side of life, at least temporarily, which boosts their contentment. Still, this approach does not mean young people should routinely rely on such strategies. “Every time I give a talk about these age differences, some young person comes up to me and asks, ‘How do I get to be like an old person?’ And I say, ‘I don't think it's a good idea. You do have to prepare for a long future. You do have to encounter conflict to achieve a long-term goal.’ That's highly adaptive,” Carstensen says.
In other words, the Zen-like mind-set of our later years involves a trade-off. If you have much to learn, do and achieve, then you need some negativity in your life. A young professional, for example, should acknowledge a co-worker's critiques, and new parents need to learn about potential dangers to their children—even if the knowledge is distressing. Detaching oneself from the world's harsh realities is a luxury that not everyone can afford.
But there are things that people of all ages can and should do to ensure happy futures. The combined biological and psychological evidence makes it clear that to profit from positivity effects in old age, you need good cognitive resources. So, do care for your body and brain. Eat well. Exercise. Challenge your intellect. Many people spend their lives chasing happiness or a sense of contentment. It turns out that time itself could be the secret formula—provided you take care of your mind.