Laura Carstensen: Older people are happier

Laura Carstensen: Older people are happier

People are living longer
and societies are getting grayer. You hear about it all the time. You read about it in your newspapers. You hear about it on your television sets. Sometimes, I’m concerned that we hear about it so much
that we’ve come to accept longer lives with a kind of a complacency, even ease. But make no mistake, longer lives can — and, I believe, will improve
quality of life at all ages. Now to put this in perspective,
let me just zoom out for a minute. More years were added to average
life expectancy in the 20th century than all years added
across all prior millennia of human evolution combined. In the blink of an eye, we nearly doubled the length of time
that we’re living. So if you ever feel like you don’t have
this aging thing quite pegged, don’t kick yourself. It’s brand new. And because fertility rates fell
across that very same period that life expectancy was going up, that pyramid that has always represented
the distribution of age in the population, with many young ones at the bottom
winnowed to a tiny peak of older people who make it and survive to old age, is being reshaped into a rectangle. And now, if you’re the kind of person who can get chills
from population statistics, (Laughter) these are the ones that should do it. Because what that means is that for the first time
in the history of the species, the majority of babies born
in the developed world are having the opportunity to grow old. How did this happen? Well, we’re no genetically hardier
than our ancestors were 10,000 years ago. This increase in life expectancy
is the remarkable product of culture — the crucible that holds
science and technology and wide-scale changes in behavior
that improve health and well-being. Through cultural changes, our ancestors
largely eliminated early death so that people can now
live out their full lives. Now there are problems
associated with aging — diseases, poverty, loss of social status. It’s hardly time to rest on our laurels. But the more we learn about aging, the clearer it becomes
that a sweeping downward course is grossly inaccurate. Aging brings some rather
remarkable improvements — increased knowledge, expertise — and emotional aspects of life improve. That’s right, older people are happy. They’re happier than middle-aged people,
and younger people, certainly. (Laughter) Study after study
is coming to the same conclusion. The CDC recently conducted a survey where they asked respondents
simply to tell them whether they experienced
significant psychological distress in the previous week. And fewer older people
answered affirmatively to that question than middle-aged people,
and younger people as well. And a recent Gallup poll
asked participants how much stress and worry and anger
they had experienced the previous day. And stress, worry, anger all decrease with age. Now social scientists call this
the paradox of aging. I mean, after all,
aging is not a piece of cake. So we’ve asked all sorts of questions
to see if we could undo this finding. We’ve asked whether it may be that
the current generations of older people are and always have been
the greatest generations. That is that younger people today
may not typically experience these improvements as they grow older. We’ve asked, well, maybe older people
are just trying to put a positive spin on an otherwise depressing existence. (Laughter) But the more we’ve tried
to disavow this finding, the more evidence we find to support it. Years ago, my colleagues
and I embarked on a study where we followed the same group
of people over a 10-year period. Originally, the sample was aged 18 to 94. And we studied whether and how
their emotional experiences changed as they grew older. Our participants would carry
electronic pagers for a week at a time, and we’d page them throughout the day
and evenings at random times. And every time we paged them, we’d ask them to answer
several questions — “On a one to seven scale,
how happy are you right now?” “How sad are you right now?” “How frustrated are you right now?” — so that we could get a sense of the kinds
of emotions and feelings they were having in their day-to-day lives. And using this intense study
of individuals, we find that it’s not
one particular generation that’s doing better than the others, but the same individuals over time come to report relatively greater
positive experience. Now you see this slight downturn
at very advanced ages. And there is a slight downturn. But at no point does it return
to the levels we see in early adulthood. Now it’s really too simplistic
to say that older people are “happy.” In our study, they are more positive. But they’re also more likely
than younger people to experience mixed emotions — sadness at the same time
you experience happiness; you know, that tear in the eye
when you’re smiling at a friend. And other research has shown that
older people seem to engage with sadness more comfortably. They’re more accepting of sadness
than younger people are. And we suspect
that this may help to explain why older people are better
than younger people at solving hotly charged
emotional conflicts and debates. Older people can view injustice
with compassion, but not despair. And all things being equal, older people direct their cognitive
resources, like attention and memory, to positive information
more than negative. If we show older, middle-aged,
younger people images, like the ones you see on the screen, and we later ask them
to recall all the images that they can, older people, but not younger people, remember more positive images
than negative images. We’ve asked older and younger people
to view faces in laboratory studies, some frowning, some smiling. Older people look toward the smiling faces
and away from the frowning, angry faces. In day-to-day life, this translates
into greater enjoyment and satisfaction. But as social scientists, we continue
to ask about possible alternatives. We’ve said, well, maybe older people
report more positive emotions because they’re cognitively impaired. (Laughter) We’ve said, could it be that positive emotions are simply easier
to process than negative emotions, and so you switch
to the positive emotions? Maybe our neural centers in our brain are degraded such that we’re unable
to process negative emotions anymore. But that’s not the case. The most mentally sharp older adults are the ones who show
this positivity effect the most. And under conditions
where it really matters, older people do process
the negative information just as well as the positive information. So how can this be? Well, in our research, we’ve found that these changes
are grounded fundamentally in the uniquely human
ability to monitor time — not just clock time
and calendar time, but lifetime. And if there’s a paradox of aging, it’s that recognizing
that we won’t live forever changes our perspective on life
in positive ways. When time horizons are long and nebulous,
as they typically are in youth, people are constantly preparing, trying to soak up all the information
they possibly can, taking risks, exploring. We might spend time with people
we don’t even like because it’s somehow interesting. We might learn something unexpected. (Laughter) We go on blind dates. (Laughter) You know, after all, if it doesn’t work out,
there’s always tomorrow. People over 50 don’t go on blind dates. (Laughter) As we age, our time horizons grow shorter
and our goals change. 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 savor life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally
important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day-to-day. But that same shift in perspective leads us to have less tolerance
than ever for injustice. By 2015, there will be more people
in the United States over the age of 60 than under 15. What will happen to societies
that are top-heavy with older people? The numbers won’t determine the outcome. Culture will. If we invest in science and technology and find solutions for the real problems
that older people face and we capitalize on the very real
strengths of older people, then added years of life can dramatically
improve quality of life at all ages. Societies with millions of talented,
emotionally stable citizens who are healthier and better educated
than any generations before them, armed with knowledge
about the practical matters of life and motivated to solve the big issues can be better societies
than we have ever known. My father, who is 92, likes to say, “Let’s stop talking
only about how to save the old folks and start talking about
how to get them to save us all.” Thank you. (Applause)

Daniel Yohans

81 thoughts on “Laura Carstensen: Older people are happier

  1. TheAvianos says:

    Okay, i didn't finish it until now..But WOW, culture will push tech? Really lala-land mentality…its governments and corporations that push tech, we only get the tech that they can make good profit on, else we would only have ev cars now, energy would be fully sustainable by now, food would be grown in hydroponic houses and basically free etc…society and the current culture WANTS THIS, but corps cant make money on it, so it won't happen…read up a bit lady

  2. sonados says:


  3. 2plus2make4 says:

    Im not sure about this.

    I think you are a little muddled – it really has nothing to do with growth. It is a separate topic

    Even though I agree with you on the excess, the problem wasnt so much excess either in and of itself – but the willingness to consume wealth that is not your own. You could make an argument that this is an outcome of the great society experiments – but I dont know if this is true.

    In terms of quantum, the boomers were very different to those other generations.

  4. TheJaredWilcurt says:

    "When asked they had significant stress the previous week, fewer old people said they did" Just because they can't remember what happened last week, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

  5. dfdtdfdx says:

    people live with govt allowance in capitalist countries are happier :p

  6. MmeDefarge (Expose NYC Meth Labs) says:

    We have "Social Security" for retirees in the States which will enable you to eat cat food (the Republicans want to get rid of it) but it's better than complete starvation. After a certain age you can both work & collect SS.

  7. 2plus2make4 says:

    no it isnt – it is a completely different topic

    I dont have the time to go through the shortfalls in this malthusian thinking.

    Look more widely than the US and you will see evidence of why it is not correct re the inter generational wealth shifting.

  8. 2plus2make4 says:

    My experience with people making the "resources are finite argument" is that it takes much effort to untangle their thinking – Sure it is true for the first ~15kGDPper capita but it is not after that. Human ingenuity and services are not finite in the time scales we think on.

    I think you are looking at the problem through a lens that only gives you one answer and that answer is not right, but I dont have the time or energy to get in debate about this – why dont we just agree to disagree.

  9. patduss says:

    I agree. Seriously, is there knowledge that is only good for women ? This is just ridiculous.

  10. Tassilo von Gleichen says:

    The demographic trend will continue.

  11. inotnaf says:

    Laura thought she was funny… but she really wasn't.

  12. squirreljester2 says:

    2:16 ancestors from 10,000 years ago… I certainly hope she doesn't mean what I think she means by that.

  13. 3rdAutisticCuckoo says:

    Don't worry, TEDxWomen isn't just for domineering and sexually frustrated baby boomer women, it's also for senior lesbians.

  14. Matt Hoyte says:

    I question some of the methodology of these studies. In my experience many people become more pessimistic and conservative as they age. And are more likely to try and avoid conflict and controversial issues or become less open minded.

  15. Honkler Bear says:

    Yes either nobody wants to admit they are flaming mysogynist sexists, or the feminists are a bunch of douche bags.
    Clever analysis Einstein.

  16. Jamie Sims says:

    I doubt it, if you mean she thinks that the earth is 6-10,000yrs old, I don't thin she is a creationist – she references human evolution.

  17. radicalbacon says:

    What would the presenters at this supposed tedxmen event talk about?
    I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure she doesn't mention gender once in her speech. As to why she's speaking at this event, I'd posit that this was likely the most convenient Ted event for her.

  18. Christopher Smyth says:

    she is speaking in these ridiculous semi-absolutes, "older people can view injustice with compassion but not despair". enjoy the view. that doesnt mean they do anything about it. the implication being that younger people despair when viewing tragedy. older people can, it doesnt mean they do. same with young people, they can and sometimes they do something. this is just agism on the other end.

    how about something like, old people dont suck, young people dont suck, some people suck.

  19. 2plus2make4 says:

    I was criticizing the malthusian approach. Our understanding of economics has come a long way since then. When a person makes an economic argument with this assumption it takes a long time to untangle the thought process to find a common ground on which to start a discussion.

    Of course you can criticize an argument for "the thinking behind it"

  20. kxmode says:

    it makes me happy to tell kids to get off my lawn.

  21. Matt Hoyte says:

    I guess I didn't articulate myself well enough. I think the methodology must be flawed because I disagree with the conclusion. She doesn't actually mention the specifics of the studies methodology. I don't think opinion surveys are extremely reliable and she didn't seem to account for the fact that those 65 and older are usually retirees and don't have small children – thus greatly reducing some common sources of stress.

  22. ack44 says:

    Should have done this presentation at a nursing home 🙂

  23. BrotherWoody1 says:

    What happened to all the peace, love, freedom, happiness that's your legacy from us?

  24. Scott Bayley says:

    I usually defend Tedwomen, but this particular talk is not a women's talk.
    At a TedMens conference they would talk about men's issues. I suspect it would be poorly attended because modern men tend to be well-heeled and extremely comfortable in their own skins. Certain communities are more likely to have success arranging men's events: witness the PromiseKeepers of American Christianity, a community that is struggling to understand masculinity in the 21st century.

  25. VoiceOfAleppo says:

    because it's TED women !

  26. VoiceOfAleppo says:

    well there is one caveat , with aging the brain becomes less capable of processing and learning new information because the neural synapses become more and more static .

  27. BloodRedCypher says:

    great ending

  28. Diana V says:

    i am not stereotyping men as privileged white males but i believe the question was coming from a white male perspective. that's what the comment said.

  29. KingRockets says:

    Saw it was TEDx Women, immediately clicked away back to the homepage.

  30. RoddyFC says:

    It's hard to love when you can't get a job to feed yourself.

  31. myfaith1969 says:

    I guess this lady never been to a nursing home. I have n I don't see happiness on them.

  32. sourcescience says:

    And therein we see the lazy prejudice of feminism. Anything that can be deemed at least two of 'White', 'Male' and 'Heterosexual' can be dismissed without argument or rational justification in the minds of some feminists. Is there something wrong with being white and male?

  33. Simon Matthews says:

    It takes a long time to come to the realization that things do not matter as much as we used to think they did when we were younger. You can only take a certain amount of shit before you come to the conclusion that it's just not worth worrying about. You can be told that worrying solves nothing, but it will be meaningless unless you've lived long enough to really understand it. And yes, at present this world is full of crap, so there's no wonder you get happier as you approach the end.

  34. sourcescience says:

    No it isn't. It is a simple question. What is wrong with being white and male?

  35. crimsontaints says:

    anyone ever read oldmans war? solution right there 🙂

  36. seven4seven says:

    I work in a nursing home, and I must say that the staff that serve the residents do their upmost to make it as comfortable as possible. I know every nursing home is different, but I do see a lot of happy faces, especially when we have entertainers come in 🙂

  37. Burgled says:

    I don't think you know what the word privileged means…

  38. GreatG0dOm says:

    Older people that I talk to always seem to be thinking about what is broken in their body or who died recently.

  39. GreatG0dOm says:

    If you take reasonable care of your health, then things probably won't start to go seriously south till mid-70s. Doubtful to be in diapers by 60 unless you have something bad that is more than aging. Maybe you can shoot to live past 60.

  40. unbearable faggot says:

    "I'm not stereotyping white men as white men"…


  41. unbearable faggot says:

    If you consider that "the real racism" is up to you, I guess, but it's still racism if you strereotype an individual as having the properties you consider intrinsic to that person's group belonging – the way it seems clear that you consider being white confers the intrinsic property of privilege. No dubt much the same way that being black confers the intrinsic property of criminal behaviour…

  42. Disquiet Awe says:

    Oh, that reminds me. I need to watch Logan's Run again.

  43. Josh Billy says:

    I feel that a lot of this has to do with experience. Old people talk about how they wish they were young again… I think young people take their experiences for granted sometimes.
    When she showed the pictures and said old people remember the happy pictures more, they included people on roller coasters and beaches. Those are things young people are more used to. Young people would probably remember the old dying people more, because that is an unusual experience

  44. craiginzana says:

    This is a bunch of terrible assumptions that older people are right compared to younger people.

  45. Ali Ababwa says:

    Poor countries dont have old people

  46. deathstreaks says:

    old people are fucking negative as fuck, atleast most I have met

  47. Mirage says:

    This is the result of government and statism. Old people get all the "favors" from the state because they vote.

  48. vampyzamby says:

    Today's welfare system is being paid on credit ! Someone will have to pay the bill in the future.

  49. Christian Kronborg says:

    Yo Doc! Your crowd is falling asleep..

  50. WorldBranstar says:

    201 unhappy young people watched this video.

  51. MADAME SAX says:

    The "me" generation slowly came to be in the late 60's. Yes, boomers had more opportunities but character and contributing to society was stressed when they were growing up, not making big bucks to flaunt materialistic gains which came later.

  52. MADAME SAX says:

    Yes, the "me" generation is now. Check the NY Times and note that within the past year, psychological disorder called narcissism has been taken out of the DSM, the handbook of mental disorders. It indicates that a self-centered existence is so prevalent it's no longer considered a disorder. This is a more recent development in the course of our so-called civilization.

  53. MADAME SAX says:

    Yes, Boomers had more opportunities because the economy was flourishing but it doesn't mean they were self-centered. Being in helping professions was considered to be an honorable goal as opposed to the masses of young people who came later and focused more on getting business degrees for bigger salaries.

  54. 16 Bit Images says:

    I can completely accept that those who are older are more or less happier, but she mentions that we should develop a way to capitalize on this 'resource.' I know there must be some jobs, but what are those? What can he try to have the older generations do to help us all?

  55. dojohansen123 says:

    A bit difficult to see why this got such a massive "don't like"-vote and depressing to suspect it's simply that people don't like the message – always a poor excuse for shooting the messenger. I liked it, but think she was rather unconvincing on her assertion "the numbers won't the determine the outcome – culture will". Maybe, but what about US culture is there give reason to think the US will fare any better than Japan, whose stock market stands today at 25% of the 1989 peak?

  56. Amie Hopkins says:

    What about the fact that the highest suicide rates are Caucasian males 80+?

  57. The Ultimate Rage says:

    Excuse me if I seem ignorant, but I thought that China wasn't allowed access to youtube……

  58. Irene Veronica says:

    If you study the cases, I'd be willing to bet that most male suicides at that age are because they've just become widowed. It's different for widowed women; having been the care givers all their lives; they still have a strong bond with the surviving children and grandchildren and feel that they need to stick around whereas men of that generation are lost without their spouse.

  59. Irene Veronica says:

    I think the message is to steer away from this youth oriented society that we live in. It's made the younger crowd self-centered and in disgust of old age which stems from the superficiality of mass advertising. It's all about looking good and try as I might, I need more make-up now than I did 30 yrs ago! But she is right, I'm not as stressed about what now seems like trivial issues, I'm much more forgiving because with age comes wisdom. Our culture should venerate this wisdom not scorn it.

  60. Irene Veronica says:

    I used to think what a wonderful invention the television was but how unfortunate is was that it was used to bend minds in order to push products. I give some credit to Gutenburg's press for getting the people out of the dark ages but porn and sensationalism is printed on presses too. Now we have the internet, it's still too soon to see its real impact as yet but I do see its evolution – we mustn't let big corporation own it but they're already polluting it… How can we not be materialistic?

  61. radiowwww says:

    We do not look for happiness, we look for peace. We are content just to be here still. We learned a long, time ago the relationship between "i was better but i got over it" (naturan negatve p[rogrssion), and the "ability to cope,(the only thing which gets better with time.and experience), and even then we eventually lose this battle also.

  62. radiowwww says:

    Dude, you start out, well but you veer off course. She is not even close to correct. Older people are not happier, we only have peace, caused as a result of experience. We do not even seelk happiness, only peace. This internet intellectual, confuses PEACE with HAPPINESS. they are not the same. I have never been happy, but i am at peace with myself.

  63. randfee says:

    true that! When I read that I immediately thought the same thing! Shouldn't it be about equality? Why an extra TED event for women?… frankly, where the f*** is TED for guys only? pfff… ridiculous!

  64. randfee says:

    I'm not even outraged anymore, have been dealing with this BS for years. As a scientist I always complain and boycott the german "girls day", where girls ONLY have been shown around research facilities and jobs and mostly men do. Replace one unequal upbringing by another one? Ridiculous. I show KIDS around the lab if possible to enthuse them about natural sciences, but girls only? I always GLADY refuse.

    I hate this crap (sorry, but the language is spot on!). I'm not going to support any of it!

  65. crudhousefull says:

    @jccarbunkle I'm from Sri Lanka, our average life expectancy is 74 years and our per capita income's around 2,500 USD (pretty poor). How much more is America's life expectancy?

  66. Biathine says:

    I know this is not the point of this video, but does anyone know where this woman is from? It sounds like an american accent to me, but I'm not a native english speaker and I'm not sure.

  67. Spaceisprettybig says:

    I laughed harder when reading this that I should have…

  68. Madya Ayala says:

    Well. it will be a great idea to measure it… but ll I can say is that WISE / older people are not unhappy… regardless their country…

  69. Diego says:

    You make this blanket statement "older people are happier." Happier than what? Compared to what? Compared to who? What demographic did you use to interpret and present your flawed data. In general, disease, subjoined by physical and eventual mental anguish, has been clearly demonstrated as the number one contributor elderly depression. Sending text messages to older adults with "yes" or "no" questions? Really? It would be nice to see the actual source of your findings.

  70. 33333guitarman says:

    why is everyone in such an uproar? Isn't it a good thing that it's all up hill from here so to speak? We'll all be old one day and personally, it gives he hope to know the future looks "happy" when im that age.

  71. PalindromicAnagram says:

    Her findings are available via Google Scholar; it lists scientific studies she has conducted, published in peer-reviewed journals. Typing in "positivity bias in older adults" will list research papers that show the effects that mediate the positivity bias in attention and memory in older adults in specific experimental paradigms. This talk is less technical than her papers, probably to appeal to the general public. If you would like to read research articles, the data is readily available.

  72. Diego says:

    Yes, the data is available to which I have perused. It simply negates the fact that 92.2% of people 65+ (BMC Geriatrics 2011) have one or more chronic diseases. Many of these people could better cope with these diseases with the exception of soaring medical costs. Older adults are increasingly forced to choose between medication or food. The findings within the data are predicated upon target groups (more affluent), than the general population.

  73. PalindromicAnagram says:

    The logic of your conclusion isn't clear to me. The first paragraph of her 2005 paper with Mather directly addresses your concern that a positive perceptual/memory bias in the aged is counterintuitive given their increased prevalence of chronic health problems. Choosing between medication and food has nothing to do with improved memory on a recall test for positively valenced stimuli. "Older people are happier" is a catchy title, yes, but her results are more nuanced than the title suggests.

  74. NTW Senior Living says:


  75. Patricia Pupkin says:

    Traducido en español

  76. jeffery gory says:

    How Do you deal with dementia??/?

  77. Zedd says:

    Actually, I think it's just the money that makes them happier.

  78. Debbie Harriman says:

    ur full of b.s.I was happier when I was 20 to 40

  79. Jack says:

    Laura Carstensen is full of hogwash. When you have enough money to live on you got f. You autonomy. You don't need anyone else.

  80. Megan Slonksnis says:

    Culture influenced how long we live on a multidimensional (biological, social emotional, and cognitively). Even though there is disease older people are happier. I found it interesting that "the paradox of aging" where stress decreases. Wisdom especially crystallized intelligence (wisdom from experience) increases. Older adults have mixed emotions which I've seen again in my mom patient's where her traumatic childhood mixed with a happy adulthood brings both sadness and happiness. Not only is there the mixed emotion, but attention is selective to what really matters.

  81. 율율VLOG says:

    what does the last quote spoken by the speaker's father mean?

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