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STANFORD UNIVERSITY — When she started her research into the psychology of aging as a young graduate student, Laura Carstensen assumed that older people were socially isolated, depressed, and lonely.

Much to the contrary, Carstensen discovered there’s a silver lining to growing old — the elderly tend to exhibit better mental health status than their younger and middle-aged counterparts, she told an alumni audience on October 15 during the 35th reunion of the MBA Class of 1976.

In fact, the trend is so distinct that psychology researchers call it “the paradox of aging,” said Carstensen, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy and Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “People are doing better emotionally, even though they are suffering many losses associated with age.”

Several factors contribute to older people’s stronger emotional health and wellbeing.

As people get on in years, they “prune” the social network of people they may be friendly enough with but are not particularly emotionally tied to — folks typically including co-workers and parents of their children’s friends. So, while an elderly individual’s social network usually is smaller than it was in their younger days, it is more likely to include only the people they really care about — usually five individuals, Carstensen explained.

“When we’re young, or when our futures seems to stretch out limitlessly in front of us, we tend to make choices that will expand our horizons. Young people tend to be in a ‘banking’ mode, taking everything in, so they go to mixers and parties, they join clubs, they accept blind dates,” Carstensen explained. “As we age and we see the amount of time left before us growing more constrained, we come to have a sense that we don’t have time for a lot of the hassles in life.”

Part of her research involved setting up experiments to see what happened during situations engineered to make younger people feel as if they have less time left to achieve their goals — in other words, to make them feel older — and make older people see their time horizons expanded, essentially making them feel younger. She found that changing time horizons dramatically impacted peoples’ goals.

In one study, participants were told to imagine they suddenly had a half hour free and could spend it with one of three people: the author of book they’d just read, a recent acquaintance, or a member of their immediate family or close friend. Seventy percent of the older people chose to spend that time with the family member or friend. Younger people equally reported wanting to spend time with people from all three categories.

Then, the older participants were told to imagine that they’d just gotten a phone call from their physician, relaying news of a new medical advance enabling them to live 30 years longer than expected. Upon getting news of having a longer time horizon, older people no longer overwhelmingly chose to spend time with family members or friends, as they had before.

In another study, younger people were told to imagine they were in the middle of packing right before making a move across the country alone and suddenly had 30 minutes free to spend with either a family member, a close friend, or an acquaintance. They overwhelmingly chose to spend that precious time with family or good friends, making the “young people now look just like old people,” said Carstensen. “So this isn’t about death, it’s about time. When time’s limited, people focus on sure things. They focus on what’s most important.”

The study results were consistent regardless of the participant’s race, ethnicity, or social class, said Carstensen.

She has also found that while younger people tend to be more likely to remember negative occurrences, older peoples’ “default” is to go through life looking at the positive side. That tendency has been shown in many ways in the lab, she said, including through studies where old and young participants are all induced into negative moods and then given the option to watch a happy movie or a negative film. While the older participants went for the happy movie, young people typically engaged in “mood matching” and selected the negative film.

Given older peoples’ ability to focus on the positive, Carstensen said “it’s a little bit surprising that individuals are uneasy about aging and society’s policy makers are panicked” about America’s graying population. Life expectancy was 77 in 1900, while people born in 2000 or later are expected to live to 100, she said.

“We certainly can’t rest on our laurels having inherited this extra 30 years of life,” said Carstensen, stressing that people must take steps to be physically healthy and financially secure throughout their expanded old age. “We have a lot of work that we need to do.”

— Michele Chandler

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