Laura Carstensen: Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older? Psychologist Laura Carstensen says that as people get older, they usually become less stressed and more content.
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Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older?

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Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older?

Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So if the passage of time changes our personalities and our values, what about its effect on our emotional state?

Can you say your name please?

LAURA CARSTENSEN: My name is Laura Carstensen. I am a professor of psychology at Stanford University. I am also the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

RAZ: So a personal question - do you mind telling me your age or roughly your age?

CARSTENSEN: Oh, I'm 61 roughly.

RAZ: Oh, great.

CARSTENSEN: (Laughter).

RAZ: So you must be happier now than you've ever been in your life.

CARSTENSEN: Of course.

RAZ: Yeah. But why? What's going on? Is it just today, or is it being 61?

CARSTENSEN: (Laughter) No, it's getting older.

RAZ: Getting older and happier, which sounds counterintuitive because when you get older, bad things start to happen to you - you get sick, your friends get sick, you can't move around as much. But Laura's crazy discovery was that as time moves forward, people actually become happier.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARSTENSEN: That's right. Older people are happy. They are happier than middle-aged people and younger people, certainly. Study after study is coming to the same conclusion.

RAZ: Here is Laura Carstensen on the TED stage.

CARSTENSEN: Years ago, my colleagues and I embarked on a study were we followed the same group of people over a 10-year period. Originally, the sample was aged 18 to 94. And we studied whether and how their emotional experiences changed as they grew older. Our participants would carry electronic pagers for a week at a time, and we'd page them throughout the day and evenings at random times. And every time we paged them, we'd ask them to answer several questions - on a one-to-seven scale, how happy are you right now? How sad are you right now? How frustrated are you right now? How happy are you right now? How frustrated are you right now? How sad are you right now? Right now. And using this intense study of individuals, we find that it's not one particular generation that's doing better than the others, but the same individuals over time come to report relatively greater positive experience.

And so people, as they grow older, seem to experience fewer negative emotions and just as many positive emotions as when they were younger. So on balance, life experience feels better.

RAZ: Yeah.

CARSTENSEN: And when scientists first discovered this finding about emotion improving with age, they referred to it as the paradox of aging. I mean, people were shocked.

RAZ: But why is that? Like, our perception of time is different the older we get, and then we're also happier on balance. What about it - like, why do people say that?

CARSTENSEN: Well, I remember talking to two sisters who lived together in an apartment complex, and they were talking about having lost many friends over the years. And I was saying, but there are a lot of people around here who are your age who are like you, you could meet all sorts of people. And one of them looked at me and said, you know, we just don't have time for those relationships. And I remembered looking at her. My first thought was - you look to me like you got a lot of time on your hands, you know. I mean, you're - what are you doing all day?

RAZ: Right.

CARSTENSEN: And I realized that she wasn't talking about time in the day. She was talking about time left in life. And I realized that at some point in life, we're never going to make a new old friend because there isn't time.

RAZ: So at that moment, you were like, wait a minute, this light goes off in your head. You're thinking I get it.

CARSTENSEN: Yeah. I went home, and I remember sitting in my living room staring out at the city of San Francisco and thinking it's all about time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARSTENSEN: Not just clock time and calendar time but life time. And if there's a paradox of aging, it's that recognizing that we won't live forever changes our perspective on life in positive ways. When time horizons are long and nebulous as they typically are in youth, people are constantly preparing, trying to soak up all of the information they possibly can, taking risks, exploring. We might spend time with people we don't even like because it's somehow interesting. You know, we might learn something unexpected.

(LAUGHTER)

CARSTENSEN: We go on blind dates.

(LAUGHTER)

CARSTENSEN: You know, after all, if it doesn't work out, there's always tomorrow. As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize that we don't have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly; we take less notice of trivial matters; we savor her life; we're more appreciative; we're open to reconciliation; we invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better.

And that's why we think people get happier as they grow older because when death isn't literally knocking at your door today but is coming closer, you know, is kind of moving into the attic and kind of hanging out in the backyard, it focuses us on life and the people and the aspects of life that matter most.

RAZ: I mean, it seems like we have that capacity to also, I guess, in a way, slow down our perception of time when we want to.

CARSTENSEN: Well, yes. You know, whenever I give public lectures and talk about these differences in time horizons and how they relate to goals, and younger people are preparing for this long-term future, and older people are savoring the moment - almost every time, some young person will come up to me afterwards and say how do I get old faster? You know, I like that state. How can I be in that state and live in that state?

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, when you're younger, you're so future-oriented. You're thinking about what's going to happen and what my life is going to be like. And then as you get older, you don't feel that way as much.

CARSTENSEN: But, you know, I - in some ways, I think of this as the silver lining of growing older is that we're relieved of the burden of the future the older we get. And a whole lot of the concerns we have in life are about the future. And as we move through life, we know where we are and where we're headed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARSTENSEN: In day-to-day life, this translates into greater enjoyment. But as social scientists, we continue to ask about possible alternatives. We've said, well, maybe older people report more positive emotions because they're cognitively impaired.

(LAUGHTER)

CARSTENSEN: We've said could it be that positive emotions are simply easier to process than negative emotions? But that's not the case. The most mentally sharp older adults are the ones who show this positivity affect the most. But it's really too simplistic to say that older people are happy. In our study, they are more positive, but they're also more likely than younger people to experience mixed emotions - sadness at the same time you experience happiness. You know, that tear in the eye when you're smiling at a friend.

You know, we think this is why poignancy increases with age, too, and why that tear in the eye tends to happen when we're thinking about chapters ending. So as we move through life and we celebrate graduation from high school, then college, marriages, the birth of children - these are positive events, but they signal the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. And those times in life are the very same events that bring a tear to our eye at the same time we're smiling.

RAZ: That's a thing, you know, like just before I came in here, I was listening to an old episode of our show. It was about space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HENRY: Two stars...

RAZ: And we put my son in it because he loved to gaze at stars. He still does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HENRY: Yeah. There's Polaris.

RAZ: And I listen to his little voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HENRY: Maybe she is Polaris's neighbor.

RAZ: And he was 4 at the time, and he's six now. And I was, you know...

CARSTENSEN: Yeah.

RAZ: ...There's my little - my, like, 4-year-old is a big boy, 6.

CARSTENSEN: Yeah.

RAZ: It was like that feeling that, like...

CARSTENSEN: All right.

RAZ: ...Sadness, but also it was weird.

CARSTENSEN: But can you imagine any emotional experience that's richer than that?

RAZ: No.

CARSTENSEN: Where you're seeing the past, you're in the present, you're thinking about the future - it's all there, and it's incredibly gratifying.

RAZ: Laura Carstensen is a psychology professor at Stanford and the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. You can check out her entire talk at ted.com. On the show today, shifting time - ideas about our perception of time. Coming up, the beginning of time - when was that? I'm Guy Raz, and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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