Ask most 20 year olds if they relish the prospect of getting older, and the majority will reply “absolutely not!” This is hardly surprising. Surely, the onset of old age doesn’t have much to recommend it. Your looks go, your body hurts, you can’t remember stuff and your mortality looms large. Of course, all these things are true to some extent, but they’re by no means the whole story.
In fact, the message in this upbeat presentation by psychologist Laura Cartensen is that for many of us, life just gets better with the marching of time. Which is a very good thing since people are living a lot longer than previously. In fact, more years were added to the average life expectancy in the 20th century than all years added across all prior millennia of human evolution combined.
According to Cartensen, “ageing brings some rather remarkable improvements”. Older folk are more knowledgeable and emotionally mature than younger folk. They are also much more positive. For obvious reasons, social scientists call this the ‘paradox of ageing’.
Cartensen explains that her own research into the phenomenon, “found these changes are grounded fundamentally in the uniquely human ability to monitor time – lifetime, not just clock and calendar time.”
In other words, when we’re in our late teens and early 20s, time horizons stretch out into infinity. We want to sample everything and if things don’t work out, no problem; there’s always tomorrow. Then we hit 50 and it suddenly dawns on us that we’re not going to be kicking around forever. This realisation can be depressing for some, but for many it’s a wake-up call to prioritise what really matters.
Cartensen puts it this way: “It changes our perspective on life in positive ways. We take less notice of trivial matters. We savour life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life and life gets better, and so we’re happier day to day.”