"At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don't care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven't been thinking of us at all. ”
Getting older is an enigma. On one hand, there’s no question that there are increased risks of illness and decreased mobility as we age. However, research suggests there is another positive side to aging that is often overlooked; that is, we should be feeling good about getting older, because as we age our perspective on life changes in remarkably positive ways.
While our short-term mental skills decline with age—what was that guy’s name again? —other mental abilities actually get better. Aging minds actually sharpen up when taxed with more complex mental tasks. It gets easier, for example, to imagine different points of view, think of multiple resolutions to resolve conflicts and suggest compromises.
By the time we reach our 60s, we manage our emotions better, too. Laura Carstensen, a social psychologist at Stanford University, led a study that followed people ages 18 to 94 for a decade. She found people got happier as they got older and their emotions were far more stable than those in their drama-filled youth (1). Researchers at Stony Brook University surveyed 340,847 randomly selected adults aged 18 to 85 and found similar results (2).
Carstensen observes: “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 savour life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, day to day.”
Most importantly, this increased ability to handle complex mental tasks is a great benefit to society. A changed perspective and emotional stability allow our elders to act as influencers in their community, offer practical solutions and a wiser perspective that can only help make the world a better, happier place.
And we can all use a lot more of that!
(1) Check out TED playlist: Talks to make you feel good about getting older.
(2) Arthur Stone, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Stony Brook University, May 17, 2010.