First Self Portrait
Contrary to more pessimistic societal assumptions, research has shown that old age often correlates with increased happiness. A recent Washington Post story reports on studies that seek to explain this trend.

One factor that may lead to increased happiness is the emotional and cognitive stability that grows with old age.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

Wisdom, while long associated with age, has always remained a murky term. Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, explains

“[wisdom] involves making decisions that would be to the greater benefit of a larger number of people” and maintaining “an element of pragmatism, not pure idealism. And it would involve some sense of reflection and self-understanding.”

The source of this wisdom and happiness remains subject to debate. Some emphasize neurobiological changes.

An MRI scan cannot isolate a part of the brain associated with wisdom, says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author of “The Wisdom Paradox.” Still, he says, the aging brain has a greater sense of “pattern recognition,” the ability to capture a range of similar but nonidentical information, then extract and piece together common features. That, Goldberg says, “gives some old people a cognitive leg up.”

While others attribute the change to social and emotional factors such as the ability to regulate emotions. Psychologist Susanne Scheibbe cites a pragmatic basis for cognitive change.

“Old people are good at shaping everyday life to suit their needs,” explains Scheibe. By carefully pruning their social networks or looking at life in relative terms, older adults maintain cognitive control. And although multiple chronic illnesses that cause functional disability or cognitive decline can affect well-being, most older adults are able to tune out negative information into their late 70s and 80s.

So perhaps there is something to that whole ‘respect your elders’ thing. Or as the Washington Post story concludes

If older adults are predisposed to wisdom, perhaps a graying population means a wiser one.