Knowing the end is near makes for positive thinking

August 16, 2016 by Emily Gersema
Through rose-colored glasses: A recent USC study shows that as people perceive that their time is limited, they are more able to focus on positive aspects of their lives. Credit: Malingering/Creative Commons

Imagine learning that you only have six months left to live. What would this do to your outlook on life? A USC-led study has revealed that our focus turns positive if we think that our time will be up soon.

"As time is more limited, people tend to focus more on their emotional goals," said Mara Mather, a lead author and professor of psychology and gerontology. "The goals that people focus on can be driven by their sense of how much time is left."

A recent study has found that anyone, regardless of age, can experience this "positivity effect" when they feel that the clock is ticking. In two experiments, participants who imagined they had only six months to live had better recall of positive pictures than those told that they would live to 120 years old.

Mather, who holds joint appointments at USC Dornsife and the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, said the study may explain why may seem positive despite their prognosis.

"Those patients sometimes change when they learn they do not have much time left," Mather said. "They want to spend more time with loved ones and focus on things that are more important to them emotionally."

The study was published online in April by the journal Memory & Cognition and in the print edition this week.

Positivity effect

Since the early 2000s, studies have explored the positivity effect. They have indicated that older adults usually recall and recognize more positive images than negative ones. Others have found that older adults reflect more positively on their decisions than younger adults do.

"There is a bigger picture issue—what I would call the 'paradox of aging and emotion,'" Mather said. "Older adults may have loved ones who are dying or who are ill. They may be declining in strength. Aging looks like it would be pretty depressing, but based on scientific assessments of daily emotions, their outlook tends to become more positive and less negative with age."

Prior studies have argued that younger adults are less positive because they perceive time as expansive. They are more likely to focus on planning for the future, compared with older adults who have more of a present-moment approach to their lives.

Two experiments

Mather and her research team, including lead author Sarah Barber of San Francisco State University, tested whether the positivity effect is age-related through two experiments.

For the first experiment, 76 older adults (average age of 69) and 77 younger adults (average age of 20) participated in a five-minute writing activity.

Some were asked to consider how they would spend the last day of their life if they had only six months to live and how they would change their spending, saving plans or other activities.

The remaining participants who were told that they would live to 120 years old were asked similar questions.

After the writing activity, both groups were asked to look at a series of 70 pictures. Regardless of age, participants told that they had six months to live were more likely to recall the pictures positively than those who were told they would live to 120.

For a second experiment, 111 participants ranging in age from 20 to 71 participated in a web-based study that tested their recall of emotional pictures. They also completed a writing activity like the first experiment.

The results showed most of the 33 participants in the limited time scenario recalled the pictures more positively than the 39 participants in the expansive time scenario and the 39 in the control group.

Although with a shorter life span may have been in a more negative mood knowing their end, they were more likely to recall pictures positively.

"The fact that ' recall is typically more positive than ' recall may index naturally shifting goals with age," the scientists wrote.

Explore further: Good attitudes about aging help seniors handle stress

Related Stories

Good attitudes about aging help seniors handle stress

August 3, 2016
New research from North Carolina State University finds that having a positive attitude about aging makes older adults more resilient when faced with stressful situations.

Selective retention of positive information may be marker for elderly memory loss

July 19, 2016
People who selectively recalled positive information over neutral and negative information performed worse on memory tests conducted by University of California, Irvine neurobiologists, who said the results suggest that this ...

A positive boost to the immune system

September 15, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—A positive attitude can improve your immune system and may help you live longer, according to a University of Queensland study.

Middle-age memory decline a matter of changing focus

July 12, 2016
The inability to remember details, such as the location of objects, begins in early midlife (the 40s) and may be the result of a change in what information the brain focuses on during memory formation and retrieval, rather ...

Senior moments explained: Older adults have weaker clutter control

June 14, 2016
A new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that older people struggle to remember important details because their brains can't resist the irrelevant "stuff" they soak up subconsciously. As a result, they tend ...

Brief memory test 'ages' older adults

October 15, 2013
You're only as old as you feel, or so the saying goes. Now, research suggests that a simple memory test can have a noticeable impact on just how old some older adults feel, aging them about five years in the span of five ...

Recommended for you

Gene associated with schizophrenia risk regulates neurodevelopment

September 25, 2017
A gene associated with the risk of schizophrenia regulates critical components of early brain development, according to a new study led by researchers from Penn State University. The gene is involved in the translation of ...

For a better 'I,' there needs to be a supportive 'we'

September 25, 2017
If you're one of those lucky individuals with high motivation and who actively pursues personal growth goals, thank your family and friends who support you.

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Researchers develop new tool to assess individual's level of wisdom

September 20, 2017
Researchers at University of San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new tool called the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) to assess an individual's level of wisdom, based upon a conceptualization of wisdom as a trait ...

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.