"The paradox of aging is that there is this decline in physical well-being and cognitive status and yet an increase in psychological well-being," Carstensen says. "We [colleagues in her laboratory] don't think of that as a paradox, of course, because it's the decline that reminds people that life will not go on forever."
With an eye on the clock, older people are more selective about their activities and relationships, Wood says. The happiest find ways to feel useful, giving them a sense of purpose and making their time feel meaningful. The happiest tend to say they enjoy serving others in some capacity.
"I think of old age as the richest form of emotional satisfaction that is possible," Carstensen says. "There are still positive emotions, but there is also an understanding and appreciation that there is an ending around the corner."
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.
"When you focus on gratefulness, you see that other people are providing you with support and value you," says Emmons, author of the book "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier." "You see that good stuff doesn't just happen randomly. It helps you make sense out of life. Grateful people see their lives as gifts."
Being able to forgive is the flip side, he adds. "It helps reduce negative emotions like anger and resentment."
The previous post on Baby Boomers and Millennial Entrepreneurs also seemed to indicate that this is what is needed from leadership in the future. Working in as a change agent in a non-profit or social entrepreneurship organization would seem to benefit myself as well as others.
More information, news and research on happiness and aging can be found at these sites:
- Stanford Center on Longevity
- University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center
- University of Michigan Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine
- American Psychological Assn.