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Thinking Differently as We Age

Last update on: Mar 15 2020

People’s attitudes and emotions change through life. As a general rule, researchers concluded that people worry less and have fewer other negative emotions as they age. Some think it’s a coping mechanism, while others think as we go through life we learn to focus on positive things. They say older people tend to live in the present and enjoy what’s happening rather than worry about the future or things that might be happening elsewhere.

But a number of older people are depressed, and depression among the post-65 crowd seems to be a medical problem. One approach for treating this group might be to teach them to think as the rest of their contemporaries do.

But the positive attitudes of most older people isn’t all good news. The combination of optimism and the general decline in decisionmaking as people age makes them vulnerable to scams and simply to bad financial decisions. So, even the happy, well post-65 crowd need some help.

How people approach life emotionally is driven by changes in their life goals, says Stanford’s Dr. Carstensen. Younger people often need to explore or take risks to achieve longer-range goals, and they experience stress and frustration in the meantime. Older people, by contrast, perceive their time horizons as shorter and focus on more immediate goals that elicit positive emotions, like being with their grandchildren, she says.

“As we focus on those [shorter-term] goals, people’s lives get better,” she says. In a study published last year, Dr. Carstensen and colleagues found that people who developed a higher ratio of positive to negative feelings as they aged were more likely to live longer. The study, published in Psychology and Aging, followed nearly 200 adults over 10 years.


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