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Why is it a mystery that older adults are happy?

sue_frantz
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“Older adults report surprisingly positive affective experience. The idea that older adults are better at emotion regulation has emerged as an intuitively appealing explanation for why they report such high levels of affective well-being despite other age-related declines” (Isaacowitz, 2022).

Our schemas and the assumptions that come with them influence how we see the world and, in turn, influence how we talk about the world. As instructors and researchers we need to consider how our assumptions can weasel their way into what we say and what we write.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ageism. Certainly, how we think about aging varies by culture. In some cultures, for example, elders are revered for their knowledge and wisdom. In others, aging is viewed as a gradual decline into an inevitable physical and cognitive wasteland. Unfortunately for me, my dominant culture is the latter. This schema that has been drilled into my head, however, has amassed so many exceptions that I’m not sure that I still have the schema. I have many friends who are in their 70s and 80s. They are all physically active and intellectual powerhouses. Every one of them.

When I read the opening two sentences of Isaacowitz’s aging and emotion regulation article in Perspectives on Psychological Science quoted at the beginning of this blog post, I was first puzzled. “Older adults report surprisingly positive affective experience.” Surprisingly? You’re surprised that older adults are happy? Why is this surprising? “The idea that older adults are better at emotion regulation has emerged as an intuitively appealing explanation for why they report such high levels of affective well-being despite other age-related declines.” Oh. You’re surprised because you believe that older adults live in a physical and cognitive wasteland, so how could they possibly be happy. This needs an explanation! It even has a name: the paradox of aging.

“There is an extensive, robust literature suggesting that older adults self-report quite positive emotional lives; sometimes they even report being more emotionally positive than their younger counterparts” (Isaacowitz, 2022). [Gasp!] The question is not why younger people aren’t happier. The question is why older adults are. Some researchers think that older adults are happier because older adults are better at regulating emotions. Isaacowitz’s article provides a nice summary of the research into this explanation and concludes that the evidence is inconclusive. The article ends with this: “the robust finding of older adults’ positive affective experience remains to be well-explained. This is a mystery for future researchers still to unravel” (Isaacowitz, 2022).

This article was a nice reminder for me to consider my own schemas and assumptions when I talk with my students about any psychological topic. For example, I knew an instructor who would talk about people who were diagnosed with a psychological disorder as suffering from the disorder. I know people with a variety of diagnoses who manage, live with, and experience psychological disorders. The word suffer brings with it a set of assumptions that I don’t share. I admit that I have my own baggage here. I have a chronic physical condition that if not well-managed could kill me which I manage, live with, and experience. I most certainly do not suffer from it. Maybe we should be also asking how I—a person with such a condition—could possibly be so gosh darn happy.

If in the Intro Psych research methods chapter you discuss how a researcher’s values affect the topics they choose to research, discussion of this article may be a good example. It’s a nice illustration of why researchers from a diversity of backgrounds is so important to science. Would, for example, a researcher from a culture that reveres older adults wonder why older adults are happy?

If you’d like to explore more about cultural ageism and its impact, I highly recommend Becca Levy’s 2022 book, Breaking the Age Code. It will change how you think about—and talk about—aging.

 

Reference

Isaacowitz, D. M. (2022). What do we know about aging and emotion regulation? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(6), 1541–1555. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211059819

 

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.