Dreading getting older is fairly widespread. We all have a secret fear associated with aging, whether it’s losing our mind or our hair. Of course, there are legitimate problems that come with aging, such as disease, poverty, and loss of social status. But what if getting older isn’t the death sentence we believe it is? This idea that aging is a mixed bag is what social scientists call the “paradox” of aging. A growing body of research on aging suggests that contrary to popular opinion, aging brings with it surprising proficiencies: expertise, resilience and sturdier mental health.
Several studies support the conclusion that older people are, if not happier, more positive than younger folks. A 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that among more than 1,500 San Diego residents aged 21 to 99, the 20-somethings were the most stressed out, while those in their 90s were the most satisfied.
The mellowing that comes with age is real. Older people tend not to sweat the small stuff. According to an article in Time magazine that quotes study author Dilip Jeste, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego, “older people are more able to brush off life’s small stressors and accumulate a valuable thing called wisdom: being emotionally stable and compassionate, knowing yourself and being able to make smart social decisions.”
There may be a physiological component to wisdom as well—brain imaging research suggests that the amygdala in older people has a diminished stress response compared to younger people.
The results of a 20-year longitudinal study from Australia, published in 2017, echoes these aging and stress findings. The study found that negative mood and depressive symptoms decreased significantly as women transition from mid-life (ages 50 to 64) to later life (65 and older). Researchers speculated that one possible cause was that full-time work and family responsibilities tapered off, women had access to more “me-time.”
Another study from the first wave of the Midlife Development in the United States suggests that overall quality of life reaches a nadir in the late 30s to early 40s, only to increase through the remaining midlife and beyond. Emerging research suggests we reframe aging not only as an obstacle, but also as an advantage.
Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center of Longevity, says as we age we may develop a positivity bias. Our willingness to be more appreciative, she theorizes, is because we rejigger how we monitor time—not just clock time but lifetime. As time becomes a scarcer commodity, it becomes more meaningful. Our priorities are cut in starker relief.
The aging paradox is well worth considering, whatever age we are. It’s about making our time–regardless of age—more valuable, fulfilling, and less likely to be sieved with regrets.
Perhaps Gene D. Cohen, a pioneer of geriatric psychiatry, said it most eloquently. He saw aging as a period of life marked in which people “have the potential to see possibility instead of problems; aging itself can be a catalyst for rich new experiences, offering a way to renew passions and reinvent oneself.” It’s a passion born of nuance and refinement, full of gusto and less likely to be ravaged by the sting of failure.
Because it’s how we experience our allotted time that matters—not how much time we have left.