Better research is needed to understand why elders are happier

January 6, 2012 By Divya Menon

(Medical Xpress) -- Older people tend to be happier. But why? Some psychologists believe that cognitive processes are responsible—in particular, focusing on and remembering positive events and leaving behind negative ones; those processes, they think, help older people regulate their emotions, letting them view life in a sunnier light. “There is a lot of good theory about this age difference in happiness,” says psychologist Derek M. Isaacowitz of Northeastern University, “but much of the research does not provide direct evidence” of the links between such phenomena and actual happiness. In a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, Isaacowitz and the late Fredda Blanchard-Fields of Georgia Institute of Technology argue for more rigorous research.

Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods—for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.

What’s missing, say the authors, are consistently demonstrated direct links between these strategies and phenomena and changes of mood for the better. One reason, Isaacowitz suggests, is that lab tests yield results that are not straightforward. “When we try to use those to predict change of mood, they don’t always do so,” he explains. “Sometimes looking at positive pictures doesn’t make people feel better.” A closer review of the literature also reveals contradictions. Some people—younger ones, for instance—may make themselves feel better by accentuating the negative in others’ situations or characteristics. And whereas some find that high scores on certain cognitive tests correlate in older people with the ability to keep their spirits up, other researchers hypothesize that happiness in later life is an effect of cognitive losses—which force to concentrate on simpler, happier thoughts.

More rigorous methods probably won’t overthrow the current theories, says Isaacowitz, but they will complicate the picture. “It won’t be as easy to say old people are happier. But even if they are happier on average, we still want to know in what situations does this particular strategy make this particular person with these particular qualities or strengths feel good.”

Explore further: Older adults spot phoney smiles better, study shows

Related Stories

Older adults spot phoney smiles better, study shows

April 12, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- Your great aunt may be slowing down as she grows older, but a study created in a Brandeis laboratory reveals that she’s probably better than you are at perceiving a genuine smile.

The dark side of Oxytocin

August 1, 2011
For a hormone, oxytocin is pretty famous. It’s the “cuddle chemical”—the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies. Salespeople can buy oxytocin spray on the internet, to make their clients trust ...

A study looks at the nature of change in our aging, changing brains

November 23, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- As we get older, our cognitive abilities change, improving when we’re younger and declining as we age. Scientists posit a hierarchical structure within which these abilities are organized. There’s ...

The first step to change: Focusing on the negative

November 11, 2011
If you want people to change the current system, or status quo, first you have to get them to notice what’s wrong with it. That’s the idea behind a new study to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of ...

Happiness has a dark side

May 16, 2011
It seems like everyone wants to be happier and the pursuit of happiness is one of the foundations of American life. But even happiness can have a dark side, according to the authors of a new review article published in Perspectives ...

Can feeling too good be bad? Positive emotions in bipolar disorder

July 22, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Positive emotions like joy and compassion are good for your mental and physical health, and help foster creativity and friendship. But people with bipolar disorder seem to have too much of a good thing. ...

Recommended for you

Researchers crack the smile, describing three types by muscle movement

July 27, 2017
The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions, cover others and manage social interactions that have kept communities secure and organized for millennia.

Ketamine for depression encouraging, but questions remain around long-term use

July 27, 2017
A world-first systematic review into the safety of ketamine as a treatment for depression, published in the prestigious Lancet Psychiatry, shows the risks of long-term ketamine treatment remain unclear.

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

DREAMers at greater risk for mental health distress

July 27, 2017
Immigrants who came to the United States illegally as small children and who meet the requirements of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as DREAMers, are at risk for mental health ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

Research aims to shape more precise treatments for depression in women

July 27, 2017
Among women in the United States, depression is at epidemic levels: Approximately 12 million women in the U.S. experience clinical depression each year, and more than 12 percent of women can expect to experience depression ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.