That’s a question that Dr. Laura Carstensen regularly fields after explaining why older people are happier than younger ones—the basis of the ubiquitous Happiness U-curve. As I admit in my talk, I didn’t really believe the curve existed until I understood why. Carstensen, a psychologist and the founder of the Stanford Longevity Center, explains it beautifully..
In an interview on NPR this week, skeptically titled “Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older?,” Carstensen describes some of the underlying research. She and her colleagues conducted an intensive ten-year study of a group of 18-94 year-olds, measuring how emotional experiences change as people age. They learned that olders experienced fewer negative emotions and just as many positive ones as they had when younger, which made their lives generally happier.
Carstensen’s research shows that people always set goals in a temporal context, and that those timelines change as a function of mortality. In other words, the awareness that time is short doesn’t fill people with dread, as I’d once assumed. It helps them to live more in the moment, to spend time doing the things that matter most with the people who do too. She tells a revealing story about a conversation with two sisters who had lost many friends over the years. When she pointed out that they could easily meet new people, one of the sisters responded, “You know, we just don’t have time for those relationships.” The psychologist’s first thought was, “You look to me like you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.” Then she realized the sister 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. 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.”
“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,” Carstensen points out. An equally counterintuitive companion notion is that a long future can be burdensome. “When time horizons are long and nebulous, as they typically are in youth, people are constantly preparing [for that future],” she says. “A lot of our concerns are about the future. And as we move through life, we know where we are and where we’re headed. In some ways—I think of this as the silver lining of growing older—we’re relieved of the burden of the future the older we get.”
Carstensen does a lot of public speaking. When she describes how goals change over time, with youngers preparing for the long-term while olders savor the moment, “Almost every time, some young person will come up to me afterwards and say ‘How do I get old faster? How can I live in that state?’” I have a suggestion: become an old person in training.