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TEDxWomen 2011

Laura Carstensen: Older people are happier

December 6, 2011

In the 20th century we added an unprecedented number of years to our lifespans, but is the quality of life as good? Surprisingly, yes! At TEDxWomen psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates that as people get older they become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world. (Filmed at TEDxWomen.)

Laura Carstensen - Psychologist
Laura Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and has extensively studied the effects on wellbeing of extended lifetimes. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
People are living longer
00:15
and societies are getting grayer.
00:17
You hear about it all the time.
00:19
You read about it in your newspapers.
00:21
You hear about it on your television sets.
00:23
Sometimes I'm concerned
00:25
that we hear about it so much
00:27
that we've come to accept longer lives
00:29
with a kind of a complacency,
00:32
even ease.
00:34
But make no mistake,
00:36
longer lives can
00:39
and, I believe, will
00:41
improve quality of life
00:43
at all ages.
00:45
Now to put this in perspective,
00:47
let me just zoom out for a minute.
00:49
More years were added
00:52
to average life expectancy
00:55
in the 20th century
00:57
than all years added
00:59
across all prior millennia
01:02
of human evolution combined.
01:06
In the blink of an eye,
01:09
we nearly doubled the length of time
01:11
that we're living.
01:14
So if you ever feel like you don't have this aging thing quite pegged,
01:16
don't kick yourself.
01:19
It's brand new.
01:21
And because fertility rates fell
01:23
across that very same period
01:25
that life expectancy was going up,
01:27
that pyramid
01:31
that has always represented the distribution of age in the population,
01:33
with many young ones at the bottom
01:36
winnowed to a tiny peak of older people
01:39
who make it and survive to old age
01:42
is being reshaped
01:44
into a rectangle.
01:46
And now, if you're the kind of person
01:49
who can get chills from population statistics,
01:51
these are the ones that should do it.
01:55
Because what that means
01:57
is that for the first time in the history of the species,
01:59
the majority of babies born
02:02
in the Developed World
02:04
are having the opportunity
02:06
to grow old.
02:09
How did this happen?
02:11
Well we're no genetically hardier than our ancestors were
02:14
10,000 years ago.
02:16
This increase in life expectancy
02:18
is the remarkable product of culture --
02:20
the crucible
02:23
that holds science and technology
02:25
and wide-scale changes in behavior
02:27
that improve health and well-being.
02:30
Through cultural changes,
02:33
our ancestors
02:35
largely eliminated early death
02:37
so that people can now live out their full lives.
02:40
Now there are problems associated with aging --
02:44
diseases, poverty, loss of social status.
02:47
It's hardly time to rest on our laurels.
02:50
But the more we learn about aging,
02:52
the clearer it becomes
02:54
that a sweeping downward course
02:56
is grossly inaccurate.
02:58
Aging brings some rather remarkable improvements --
03:01
increased knowledge, expertise --
03:05
and emotional aspects of life improve.
03:08
That's right,
03:14
older people are happy.
03:16
They're happier than middle-aged people,
03:19
and younger people certainly.
03:21
Study after study
03:23
is coming to the same conclusion.
03:25
The CDC recently conducted a survey
03:27
where they asked respondents simply to tell them
03:30
whether they experienced significant psychological distress
03:33
in the previous week.
03:35
And fewer older people answered affirmatively to that question
03:37
than middle-aged people,
03:40
and younger people as well.
03:42
And a recent Gallup poll
03:44
asked participants
03:46
how much stress and worry and anger
03:48
they had experienced the previous day.
03:50
And stress, worry, anger
03:52
all decrease with age.
03:56
Now social scientists call this the paradox of aging.
04:00
After all, aging is not a piece of cake.
04:03
So we've asked all sorts of questions
04:06
to see if we could undo this finding.
04:08
We've asked whether it may be
04:12
that the current generations of older people
04:14
are and always have been
04:17
the greatest generations.
04:19
That is that younger people today
04:21
may not typically experience these improvements
04:23
as they grow older.
04:26
We've asked,
04:28
well maybe older people are just trying to put a positive spin
04:30
on an otherwise depressing existence.
04:33
(Laughter)
04:35
But the more we've tried to disavow this finding,
04:37
the more evidence we find
04:40
to support it.
04:42
Years ago, my colleagues and I embarked on a study
04:44
where we followed the same group of people over a 10-year period.
04:46
Originally the sample was aged 18 to 94.
04:49
And we studied whether and how their emotional experiences changed
04:53
as they grew older.
04:56
Our participants would carry electronic pagers
04:58
for a week at a time,
05:01
and we'd page them throughout the day and evenings at random times.
05:03
And every time we paged them
05:06
we'd ask them to answer several questions --
05:08
On a one to seven scale, how happy are you right now?
05:10
How sad are you right now?
05:13
How frustrated are you right now? --
05:15
so that we could get a sense
05:17
of the kinds of emotions and feelings they were having
05:19
in their day-to-day lives.
05:21
And using this intense study
05:23
of individuals,
05:25
we find that it's not one particular generation
05:27
that's doing better than the others,
05:31
but the same individuals over time
05:33
come to report relatively greater
05:36
positive experience.
05:38
Now you see this slight downturn
05:40
at very advanced ages.
05:43
And there is a slight downturn.
05:45
But at no point does it return
05:47
to the levels we see
05:49
in early adulthood.
05:51
Now it's really too simplistic
05:53
to say that older people are "happy."
05:57
In our study, they are more positive,
06:01
but they're also more likely than younger people
06:04
to experience mixed emotions --
06:06
sadness at the same time you experience happiness;
06:09
you know, that tear in the eye
06:11
when you're smiling at a friend.
06:13
And other research has shown
06:16
that older people seem to engage with sadness
06:18
more comfortably.
06:20
They're more accepting of sadness than younger people are.
06:22
And we suspect that this may help to explain
06:25
why older people are better than younger people
06:28
at solving hotly-charged emotional conflicts and debates.
06:31
Older people can view injustice
06:36
with compassion,
06:39
but not despair.
06:41
And all things being equal,
06:44
older people direct their cognitive resources,
06:46
like attention and memory,
06:48
to positive information more than negative.
06:50
If we show older, middle-aged, younger people images,
06:53
like the ones you see on the screen,
06:56
and we later ask them
06:59
to recall all the images that they can,
07:01
older people, but not younger people,
07:04
remember more positive images
07:07
than negative images.
07:09
We've asked older and younger people
07:11
to view faces in laboratory studies,
07:13
some frowning, some smiling.
07:15
Older people look toward the smiling faces
07:17
and away from the frowning, angry faces.
07:20
In day-to-day life,
07:23
this translates into greater enjoyment
07:25
and satisfaction.
07:27
But as social scientists, we continue to ask
07:31
about possible alternatives.
07:33
We've said, well maybe older people
07:35
report more positive emotions
07:37
because they're cognitively impaired.
07:39
(Laughter)
07:42
We've said, could it be
07:45
that positive emotions are simply easier to process than negative emotions,
07:47
and so you switch to the positive emotions?
07:50
Maybe our neural centers in our brain
07:53
are degraded such
07:55
that we're unable to process negative emotions anymore.
07:57
But that's not the case.
08:00
The most mentally sharp older adults
08:02
are the ones who show this positivity effect the most.
08:05
And under conditions where it really matters,
08:09
older people do process the negative information
08:12
just as well as the positive information.
08:14
So how can this be?
08:17
Well in our research,
08:20
we've found that these changes
08:22
are grounded fundamentally
08:24
in the uniquely human ability to monitor time --
08:26
not just clock time and calendar time,
08:29
but lifetime.
08:31
And if there's a paradox of aging,
08:34
it's that recognizing that we won't live forever
08:36
changes our perspective on life
08:39
in positive ways.
08:41
When time horizons are long and nebulous,
08:44
as they typically are in youth,
08:47
people are constantly preparing,
08:49
trying to soak up all the information they possibly can,
08:52
taking risks, exploring.
08:55
We might spend time with people we don't even like
08:57
because it's somehow interesting.
09:00
We might learn something unexpected.
09:03
(Laughter)
09:05
We go on blind dates.
09:07
(Laughter)
09:09
You know, after all,
09:11
if it doesn't work out, there's always tomorrow.
09:13
People over 50
09:16
don't go on blind dates.
09:18
(Laughter)
09:21
As we age,
09:26
our time horizons grow shorter
09:28
and our goals change.
09:30
When we recognize that we don't have all the time in the world,
09:33
we see our priorities most clearly.
09:36
We take less notice of trivial matters.
09:38
We savor life.
09:41
We're more appreciative,
09:43
more open to reconciliation.
09:45
We invest in more emotionally important parts of life,
09:48
and life gets better,
09:51
so we're happier day-to-day.
09:54
But that same shift in perspective
09:57
leads us to have less tolerance than ever
09:59
for injustice.
10:02
By 2015,
10:04
there will be more people in the United States
10:06
over the age of 60
10:09
than under 15.
10:11
What will happen to societies
10:14
that are top-heavy with older people?
10:16
The numbers won't determine
10:19
the outcome.
10:22
Culture will.
10:24
If we invest in science and technology
10:27
and find solutions for the real problems
10:30
that older people face
10:32
and we capitalize
10:35
on the very real strengths
10:37
of older people,
10:39
then added years of life
10:41
can dramatically improve quality of life
10:43
at all ages.
10:46
Societies with millions
10:48
of talented, emotionally stable citizens
10:51
who are healthier and better educated
10:53
than any generations before them,
10:56
armed with knowledge
10:58
about the practical matters of life
11:00
and motivated
11:02
to solve the big issues
11:04
can be better societies
11:06
than we have ever known.
11:09
My father, who is 92,
11:13
likes to say,
11:16
"Let's stop talking only about
11:18
how to save the old folks
11:20
and start talking about
11:22
how to get them to save us all."
11:24
Thank you.
11:28
(Applause)
11:30

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Laura Carstensen - Psychologist
Laura Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and has extensively studied the effects on wellbeing of extended lifetimes.

Why you should listen
Dr. Carstensen is Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at Stanford University, where she is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, which explores innovative ways to solve the problems of people over 50 and improve the well-being of people of all ages. She is best known in academia for socioemotional selectivity theory, a life-span theory of motivation. She is also the author of A Long Bright Future: An Action Plan for a Lifetime of Happiness, Health, and Financial Security — an updated edition will be released in 2011.
The original video is available on TED.com
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