Why Betty White Is Happier Than Ever

I’m coming a little late to this, but a 13-year study by Laura Carstensen, a psychologist and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, found that as we get older, we become more emotionally stable, making us “better able to solve highly emotional problems,” she says, and happier.

Her research showed that older people report feeling more positive emotions and less negative emotions than when they were younger. Yet they’re also more likely than younger people to report feeling a mix of positive and negative emotions—probably because older people are more aware of their own mortality, meaning that happy moments are tinged with the realization that life is short and time is limited. According to Carstensen, this is “a signal of strong emotional health and balance.”

Older people experience less stress than younger people do, she says, since they face less uncertainty over how their lives will turn out and have usually made peace with their successes and failures. And when people realize that time is running out, she adds, they tend to invest in the things that really matter to them, an effect she calls “socio-emotional selectivity.”

If people become more emotionally stable as they age, “older societies could be wiser and kinder societies,” Carstensen explains in a write-up of her research, and as the baby boomers get older:

We may be seeing a larger group of people who can get along with a greater number of people. They care more and are more compassionate about problems, and that may lead to a more stable world.

Why Relationships Get Better With Age

Here’s a lovely thought: Your friendships and relationships with family members should get better as you get older.
Why? According to research led by Karen Fingerman, a professor of gerontology at Purdue University, we change the way we behave depending on age, and we’re often more likely to forgive older people or give them a pass when they commit a social faux pas.
Past research has also shown that younger people are more confrontational than older folks—and expecting this might make older people more cordial to those who are younger. Older people also appear to be better at regulating their emotions when they’re upset. At the same time, younger people tend to think they should be more patient and respectful toward those who are older and that the elderly are so stuck in their ways, there’s no point trying to change them.
Overall, Fingerman explains in a write-up of her recent research:

Older adults report better marriages, more supportive friendships, and less conflict with children and siblings. While physical and cognitive abilities decline with age, relationships improve. So what is so special about old age? We found that the perception of limited time, willingness to forgive, aging stereotypes, and attitudes of respect all play a part. But it’s more than just about how younger people treat an older person, it’s about how people interact.

Superstition Improves Confidence and Performance

Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at Bristol University and the author of The Science of Superstition (the softcover release of SuperSense), reports:

A team from Köln in Germany has shown that university students of whom more than 80 percent believe in luck, perform significantly better on a putting task if they think they have been handed a “lucky” golf ball. They also did significantly better than controls on a second experiment if they were told that someone was crossing their fingers for them. In a third experiment, students who had brought their lucky talisman along to the testing session did better when it was in the testing room. The fourth experiment demonstrated that these lucky students attributed their better performance to improved self-efficacy. So there we have it. If you believe in lucky charms then you perform better because of perceived self-efficacy.

And this greater confidence, the researchers found, leads people to set higher goals and work harder at achieving them. But the team, led by social psychologist Lysann Damisch, didn’t test the effects of superstitions linked to bad luck (which they plan to do next) or the negative effects of superstitions. As Ed Young points out:

the big worry is that superstitions, while potentially providing temporary benefits, could prevent people from taking responsibility for changing their own fates or even form the basis of catastrophic decisions. Clearly, the effects described by Damisch’s study need to be considered as part of a bigger psychological canvas. The effects of crossed fingers on anagram tasks is one thing, but the effects of conspiracy theories or religious traditions on our ability to understand the world around us and to make decisions in our lives is another matter entirely.

Oxytocin Promotes Parochial Altruism

Researchers have long known that oxytocin, often called the “love hormone,” is linked to our sense of trust and the desire to connect with others. But according to researchers at the University of Amsterdam, oxytocin also appears to lead to “defensive” aggression—acts of of aggression against threatening outgroups.
A team of psychologists asked male volunteers play an economic game and found that those who received a nasal spray of oxytocin made financial decisions that were more altruistic toward members of their own group, keeping less money for themselves and donating more to the communal pool. Yet they were also more likely to punish members of a competing group—taking money away from them—when there was the possibility their own group could lose money if the other group chose to punish first. Because this type of aggression helps the ingroup become stronger—in the same way a soldier who risks his life fighting an enemy helps his country survive and thrive—researchers see it as an indirect form of cooperation they call “parochial altruism.”
As the researchers conclude:

Our findings show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide functioning as both a neurotransmitter and hormone, plays a critical role in driving in-group love and defensive (but not offensive) aggression toward out-groups. Perhaps offensive forms of out-group hate have their biological roots elsewhere, or perhaps these tendencies are primarily grounded in perceived in-group love and protectionism in competing out-groups. After all, if competing out-groups become strong and powerful, they become a threat to the in-group, and this in and of itself not only motivates in-group members to display in-group love but also motivates protectionism and preemptive strike. As shown here, this “tend and defend” form of parochial altruism is precisely what oxytocin modulates.