September 9, 2022 | OPINION | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Iris Guo
We live in a society that’s obsessed with the young. Young people are plastered on billboards as the faces of what’s fashionable and cool. The anti-aging industry brings in billions with its promises of wrinkle-reducing creams and Botox. In a recent New York Times article about her new skincare line, Kim Kardashian made her feelings about aging clear: “If you told me that I literally had to eat poop every single day and I would look younger, I might. I just might.”
I remember people telling me as a kid to enjoy childhood while it lasts, implying that what comes after isn’t as pretty. More recently, I was making small talk with some fellow Coloradans on a hike when they urged me to enjoy my time in college, because it will be the best time of my life. These are cultural messages that I have been told directly but also have absorbed over time through some sort of osmosis process. My impression is that, as I get older and my youthful days are behind me, people will stop telling me that I’m living the best time of my life. That time will be over.
As a result of society’s preference for youth, there seems to come a point in life when many people aren’t as enthusiastic about blowing out the birthday candles.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that you should be happy as a clam every year that you get older and closer to your inevitable death. It’s part of the human experience to grapple with this process, and of course there are valid reasons why we are anxious about getting older. However, I do think it’s important to recognize that it’s not all doom and gloom; there are exciting opportunities and experiences to look forward to that are unique to late adulthood.
How much truth is there to the negative anti-aging stereotypes that are all over the place? My response to that is: sure, we might experience some physical, cognitive, and sensory decline as we age. However, consider data collected by The Pew Research Center. They studied the percentage of younger and middle-aged adults who reported that they expect to experience stereotyped trajectories such as memory loss, a serious illness, reduced sexual activity, and loneliness when they grow older.
They found that these percentages were much larger than the percentage of older people who reported actually dealing with those issues. For example, 57% of adults aged 18-64 indicated that they expect to experience memory loss in the future, but only 25% of adults aged 65 or older indicated that they actually experience that. People tend to overestimate the likelihood that older age will bring ailments.
Socioemotional selectivity theory, developed by psychologist Laura Carstensen, helps to shed light on how older adulthood can be a unique time for our relationships to evolve. According to the theory, as people grow older and their understanding that they have limited time left to live becomes more salient, they deliberately diminish the amount of people in their social network over time and prioritize emotionally meaningful interactions.
People become motivated to preserve social harmony with those in their life. Carstensen has shown in several studies that older adults tend to spend gradually less time with loose acquaintances while bolstering the amount of time spent with those close to them. Another study (2004) by Fingerman and others showed that older adults were more likely to view their relationships as close ties — rather than of an ambivalent nature — than younger adults.
Older adults also tend to have a positivity bias, which can enhance the social interactions that they have. In a 2014 study by Luong & Charles, younger and older adults were both paired with a confederate (someone who pretends to be a participant in the study but is an actor) in order to complete a task. Throughout the task, the confederate was rude and condescending.
Compared to the younger adults, the older adults experienced less negative affect during the experience, considered the confederate to be more likeable, and found the experience to be more pleasant. They didn’t experience a heightened pulse rate like the younger adults did, either. Ultimately, the older adults just weren’t as bothered by it; they were able to employ strategies in order to manage their emotions and preserve social harmony.
This positivity bias has been observed in many areas and can make for a more enjoyable life. For example, Charles, Carstenson & Mather conducted a study in which they showed people from varied age groups positive images, such as people having fun on a rollercoaster, as well as negative images, such as a solemn man sitting beside a hospital bed.
Later, they tested participants on which images they remembered seeing. The older adults remembered more of the positive images compared to the negative ones, unlike their younger peers. Older adults pay more attention to and better remember positive information. Studies also suggest that with older age comes less emotional turbulence. In Laura Carstensen’s Ted Talk “Older People are Happier,” she references a 2009 Gallup poll that asked participants how much stress, anxiety, and anger they experienced the previous day. These unpleasant experiences decreased as participants grew in age.
As students here at Colorado College, most of us want to grow our social network and meet people who might be beneficial to us in the future. I think that one of the main takeaways from this research is that with age, people’s motivations tend to change.
Carstenson has found that older adults seek out relationships for the emotional gains rather than for information gain or future contact. Older age is a unique time because your relationships will likely evolve in meaningful ways, and you’re likely to surround yourself with people who are emotionally fulfilling to be around. Also, having a positivity bias so that you see situations through rose-colored glasses and are less stressed and irritated doesn’t sound too shabby.
I am excited to tell the next generation stories about the old days; stories that I’ve accumulated over a lifetime of rich experiences. Right now, I’m much more excited about my 20s than I am about flipping through old photo albums in the distant future. But, when the time comes, there will be a lot to appreciate and enjoy.