New & Now: Upbeat Elders

by Charles E. Reineke

A century ago, about 3 million people in the United States were over the age of 65. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36 million Americans have lived for six and a half decades, a number that is expected to grow to more than 70 million as the nation's baby boomers achieve senior citizen status. (See our feature on Page 8).

How might all these seniors be expected to cope in our youth-obsessed nation? Very well, thank you, says an MU psychologist.

In a series of recent studies, Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychological sciences, has shown that, compared to a younger cohort, older people are better positioned to pursue goals they enjoy and believe in. Thus, Sheldon says, they tend to be happier with their lives.

This increased level of personal satisfaction, he adds, can offset some of the unwelcome changes that come with aging. "It's not that we're downplaying the physical and cognitive declines," he says. "We're saying, 'Getting older is not all bad news.' It's not necessarily a downer. In at least one way, we get better as we get older, by learning to resist social pressures. Thus, we don't waste energy doing things we don't believe in. We may not have the same physical abilities or mental flexibility, but we learn to do things for the right reasons."

Sheldon's most recent study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, compared the "well-being and goal motivations" of a group of MU students and their parents. The average age of parents participating in the study was 50. Students averaged age 20. Both groups were asked to list their life goals and then rate their reasons for selecting them. Next, they were asked to rate their sense of well-being.

When Sheldon tallied up the results, he discovered that older participants reported greater freedom to select and pursue goals that were personally satisfying -- say, building primary schools in Nepal, as opposed to purchasing a home in the suburbs -- and that this led to greater feelings of contentment. "They are more satisfied with their lives and have fewer negative moods than young people," says Sheldon. "Younger people feel pressured or controlled and that takes a toll on their happiness."

Earlier investigations led by Sheldon have shown that this sense of autonomy makes even slightly onerous social obligations easy for the elderly to bear. His 2005 study in the European Journal of Personality reported, for example, that older adults were less inclined to grumble when paying taxes, tipping and voting.

In short, one could conclude, growing old really is better than the alternative.