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Blog-The Paradoxical Wonderfulness of Knowing the End of Life Is Near

The Paradoxical Wonderfulness of Knowing the End of Life Is Near

Posted on: February 19, 2021

Written by David Boninger and Brett Pelham, authors of Introductory Psychology in Modules.

Throughout much of human existence—and there is about 200,000 years of it—life sucked and then you died.  Worse yet, you usually died young.  Even two centuries ago, human life was really rough. For example, in most of Western Europe in the early 1800s, most people could expect to die in their early to mid-40s.  Disease and malnutrition were so rampant that very few people lived to be 60 or 70.  Making it to 80 was a small miracle.  But all that bad news has gotten much better with the advent of sanitation, adequate nutrition, and modern medicine.  Today, of course, many people in wealthy nations across the globe can expect to live to be 80, 90, or even older.    

Developmental psychologist Laura Carstensen and her colleagues suggest that seniors in wealthy nations have responded to their recent gerontological windfall in two interesting ways.  Relative to young and middle-aged adults, today’s seniors more strongly value close, established relationships and more often seek out positive emotional experiences. This is the gist of socioemotional selectivity theory.

The logic of the theory is that older people think “I don’t have much time left. I better enjoy myself!” Carstensen and her colleagues have shown, for example, that seniors process and remember information in ways that “accentuate the positive.” So,  if you show both positive and negative images to both younger and older adults, older adults have greater difficulty than younger adults remembering the negative as opposed to positive images.  Likewise, if you ask people about their memories for their own personal experiences, older people have weaker memories for things that made them angry than do younger people. Personally, that makes us a little envious. In fact, it makes us downright angry.

Perhaps the studies that most firmly support socioemotional selectivity theory are those that examine people’s motivations rather than their memories.  Most older adults are strongly motivated to spend whatever time they have left with those they deeply love. In comparison, younger adults are more interested in experiences that fulfill their needs for mastery, such as learning new things or traveling to new places.  Of course, younger adults also have a need for social connections and belonging. But compared with older adults, younger adults are much more interested in forging new relationships.  For good reason, all people value both mastery (succeeding and getting things done) and connectedness (being bonded to and accepted by others). But on average, young people value mastery more than older people do, and  older people value connectedness more than young people do.  As a result, older adults usually report greater happiness and lower stress than younger adults.

Older woman laughing in front of a building with plants outside

Photo by Antevasin Nguyen, from Unsplash

Of course, it seems paradoxical for people to be happy when death is on the horizon. One might expect people to experience a colossal crisis when they know death is looming.  But in study after study, both in Carstensen’s lab and elsewhere, the age group that is usually doing best psychologically is often the oldest age group. For example, in a large and highly representative telephone survey of American adults of all ages, American seniors reported much lower levels of stress and worry than did either young or middle-aged adults.  Old age may come with plenty of aches and pains, but, overall,  stress and anxiety are lower than they were earlier in life.  

Exceptions to the rule of greater happiness and well-being among seniors are just as informative as the main trends.  For example, research shows that you can make young people think like seniors by asking them to imagine that they’re about to make a permanent move to the planet Mars. When people believe that their time on earth is short, even young people strongly prefer to be with those they already know and love—rather than getting to know strangers.

As a different exception to the rule, consider the finding that older Americans usually report less worry and stress than younger Americans. This pattern is not observed for very old Americans who are still employed full-time (when most of their peers have long been retired). In the large survey study just mentioned, the authors got responses from almost 2,900 interviewees aged 91 and older, quite a few of whom  still worked full-time.  Working adults in their 90s were twice as likely as working adults in their 70s or early 80s to say that they had experienced a lot of worry or stress yesterday.  This finding drives home one of the more intuitive reasons why seniors are usually happier than the rest of us.  For most seniors – the retired ones, at least—every day is the weekend.  Every day is free of work-related stresses, and full of time to do whatever one wishes. Long live weekends.