Senior Citizens are Happier Than Younger Adults but Why is Not Clear
Psychologist call for more rigorous research to understand why elderly Americans are so happy
Jan. 9, 2012 - Older people tend to be happier. But why? Two psychologist explore the theories of what makes senior
citizens so happy and conclude that existing research does not provide an adequate answer. In a new article in
Perspectives on Psychological Science they call for more rigorous research.
Some psychologists believe that cognitive processes are responsible - in particular, focusing on and remembering positive
events and leaving behind negative ones; those processes, they think, help older people regulate their emotions, letting them view life in a
American senior citizens who say they're happy simply part of an era
that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people – whether born
and raised in boom times or busts – have it within themselves to reach
their golden years with a smile? - Oct. 28, 2010
“There is a lot of good theory about this age difference in happiness,” says psychologist Derek M. Isaacowitz of
Northeastern University, “but much of the research does not provide direct evidence” of the links between such phenomena and actual happiness.
Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on
and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less.
Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods - for instance,
pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down.
Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their
goals toward greater wellbeing.
What is missing are consistently demonstrated direct links between these strategies and phenomena and changes of mood for
the better, according to the authors, Isaacowitz and the late Fredda Blanchard-Fields of Georgia Institute of Technology.
One reason, Isaacowitz suggests, is that lab tests yield results that are not straightforward. “When we try to use those
cognitive processes to predict change of mood, they don’t always do so,” he explains.
“Sometimes looking at positive pictures doesn’t make people feel better.”
A closer review of the literature also reveals contradictions. Some people - younger ones, for instance - may make
themselves feel better by accentuating the negative in others’ situations or characteristics.
And, whereas some psychologists find that high scores on certain cognitive tests correlate in older people with the
ability to keep their spirits up, other researchers hypothesize that happiness in later life is an effect of cognitive decline - which force
older people to concentrate on simpler, happier thoughts.
More rigorous methods probably won’t overthrow the current theories, says Isaacowitz, but they will complicate the
“It won’t be as easy to say old people are happier. But even if they are happier on average, we still want to know in
what situations does this particular strategy make this particular person with these particular qualities or strengths feel good.”
Perspectives on Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general
psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. It publishes an eclectic mix of thought-provoking articles on the
latest important advances in psychology.