Will we be happier when we’re older?

It’s very likely. The LA Times has a long, excellent article on age and happiness. Here are some highlights:

The explanation doesn’t appear to be biological – some chemical in the brain that mellows us just when all those plump neurons needed for thinking and memory are shriveling up. Rather, most scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.

“When you have that disaster at 10 in the morning, you can deal with it better when you’re older,” says Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at Scripps College in Claremont. “With people in their 20s, it throws them off. They experience more emotion, and it’s more intense emotion.”

And:

Older people are aware that life doesn’t last forever — and, with a finite amount of time ahead, they think it should be well spent.

In a study at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, psychologist Laura Carstensen showed that people who perceived their future time as limited had goals that were emotionally meaningful. 

And:

An appreciation of remaining time leads older people to be more grateful for what they have, Carstensen and other researchers say. And being thankful is great for mental health. Studies by Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at UC Davis, show that people who focus on what they are grateful for have better emotional well-being, especially a positive mood, compared with people who focus on the negative or neutral information.

And:

“That is what goes on in youth,” she says. “Younger people have to prepare for a long, nebulous future. That is anxiety-producing. I’m not sure it would be adaptive for young people to say, ‘I’m not going to worry about the future,’ because you do have to worry about the future.’ “

As people age, they are gradually relieved of the burden of planning for the future, she notes.

And:

In fact, individual temperament is still the best predictor of happiness overall, Wood says. A child who is always smiling will likely be joyful decades later. The grumpy 30-year-old will likely be a grumpy, if slightly less so, 70-year-old.

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