By Dana Edwards
The stereotype of the grouchy old-timer may be a thing of the past.
People become happier as they get older, according to an Oct. 25 article in the journal Psychology and Aging detailing the results of a 10-year study led by a Stanford professor.
Laura Carstensen, psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, led the study, which was co-authored by postdoctoral fellows Bulent Turan Ph.D. ’09, Susanne Scheibe and researchers from other universities.
The study collected data over 10 years in order to examine the fluctuating levels of happiness in individuals as they aged a decade.
“There is a lot of evidence suggesting that as people get older, they get more positive emotionally, but none of it is conclusive,” Turan said. “This is the first study examining the issue in a longitudinal assay.”
The study included 184 Bay Area participants, ranging from ages 18 to 94. The subjects were carefully selected to represent a wide variety of ages, education levels, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses.
“We took great pains to make it very representative of the Bay Area,” said Hal Ersner-Herschfield Ph.D. ’09, another co-author.
The subjects were asked to carry pagers for one week every five years–once at the beginning of the study, once at the five-year mark, and once at the 10-year mark.
“We paged them randomly, five times a day, and every time they were paged they had to rate their emotions on a scale of one to seven.” Turan said. “We looked at the average of all the positive and negative emotions, not the intensity but the frequency. We subtracted the frequency of positive emotions from the frequency of negative emotions. Then we looked to see if, as people got older, their positive emotional frequency got higher.”
The researchers employed the experience-sampling method (ESM), which they argue produces more accurate results than asking participants to generalize about their emotional health.
“Compare, for example, the different types of information that individuals draw upon to answer the following questions,” the authors wrote. “(a) ‘How much anger do you feel <I>at this moment<P>?’ and (b) ‘To what degree are you an angry person?’ In the former, the respondent draws on immediate feeling states. The latter demands an averaging of emotional tendencies and a comparison of those tendencies to what he or she expects is typical of other people.”
The researchers found that, on average, the people became more positive over the course of 10 years.
The study was not meant to identify the causes of this increased happiness, said Carstensen, but she points to other research that suggests a growing sense of mortality may change a person’s perspective on life.
“This particular study doesn’t address ‘why?’” Carstensen wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “It simply describes changes in emotional lives over time. Other experimental research in our laboratory, however, suggests that time horizons influence experience. Paradoxically perhaps, longer time horizons are associated with greater angst than shorter ones, and of course time horizons shrink with age.”
“The reason people get more positive as they get older is expressed well by the socio-emotional selectivity theory,” Turan said, referring to a theory developed by Carstensen. “When you see that you don’t have much life left, you change your priorities. You’re more interested in emotional well-being rather than life goals you may have previously had.”
The author suggested that these findings might contradict popular opinion.
“Young people are regularly told, ‘These are the best years in life,’” Carstensen said. “Emotionally speaking, that’s simply not so.”
Contact Dana Edwards at [email protected]