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Research Review

Longer Lives Can Still Lead to Happier Golden Years

As more people live well into their 80s and 90s, it’s reassuring to know that most people get happier as they age and exert more emotional control than younger adults, according to researchers who spoke at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

“Life expectancy changed because people changed the way they lived,” said Laura Carstensen, PhD. “Now that we’re here, we have to keep adapting. We are in the middle of a second revolution and it’s up to us to make adulthood itself longer and healthier.”

Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said the percentage of people on the planet who are over 65 is expected to more than double by the year 2050, and the fastest-growing segment of the population is people over the age of 85.

Susan Turk Charles, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, presented a review of several psychological studies on aging and mental health. She found that except for people with dementia-related diseases, mental health generally improves with age. One study she cited—a 23-year longitudinal study looking at three groups of people, each at different stages in their lives—found that emotional happiness improved with age.

Research has also shown that older adults exert greater emotional control than younger adults, meaning older adults are more likely to actively avoid or limit negative, stressful situations than do younger adults, Charles said.

“Based on work by Carstensen and her colleagues, we know that older people are increasingly aware that the time they have left in life is growing shorter,” said Charles. “They want to make the best of it so they avoid engaging in situations that will make them unhappy. They have also had more time to learn and understand the intentions of others which help them to avoid these stressful situations.”

In separate addresses, Carstensen and Charles both acknowledged the importance of social relationships on longevity. Scientists have been uncovering evidence that the quality of people’s relationships can influence the way their brains process information and how they respond physiologically to stress.

— Source: American Psychological Association