“Stop telling people in their 20s that these are the best years of their lives. They’re not.”
That’s straight from an expert with decades of psychological research focused on aging—so you can trust her that you haven’t left your best years behind. Laura Carstensen, Ph.D. is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, where she studies motivational and emotional changes that occur with age and the influence these changes have on the way we process information.
Her research on aging has been revolutionary in the field of psychology: She says that “people haven’t been asking the right questions about aging. How are older people actually doing emotionally? We just sort of assumed we knew the answer.”
There were previous studies that found that older people said they were doing well emotionally—but researchers were so sure that couldn’t be true that they chalked it up to older people not knowing how to process their own emotions anymore, Carstensen says.
By contrast, her signature socioemotional selectivity theory points out that there are many things to look forward to as we age, especially when it comes to our emotions.
She sat down with Prevention to share what her years of longevity research can teach all of us about living well in the second half of life. Here, the four mistakes people make when they think about aging—and how to live your best life no matter what decade you’re in.
1. The ‘work, then retire’ model needs serious rethinking
People are living longer than ever—and that means we need a new life map, Carstensen says.
A 100-year-long life may soon be common, but our society isn’t set up for it. “The social institutions, economic policies, and social norms that evolved when people lived for half as long are no longer up to the task,” she explains. “The resulting narrative around an ‘aging society’ seems to convey only a crisis, ignoring obvious opportunities to redesign those institutions, practices, and norms and bring them into sync with the health, social, and financial needs of 100-year lives.”
One problem, as she sees it, is this: “When we are working, we are working too hard, and then when we’re retired, we’re retired too hard. Working for 60-80 hours a week isn’t good for anybody and retiring for 30 years isn’t good for anybody.”
In her research, Carstensen found that across the board, people were not as cognitively sharp after they retired as they were when they were working, except for one group of people: Those who were in high-complexity jobs who retired for one year and then went back to work in some capacity. These people were in better cognitive shape than those who had continued to work steadily. Instead of working full-time for 40 years and then retiring completely, Carstensen proposes that “we need breaks…we could take these thirty years [of “retirement”] and put them anywhere we want.”
Carstensen adds that people should strive to do different things throughout their lives. “The model of work that we have in most jobs is that you train to do something, you get really good at it, and then you just do that thing. But it isn’t very stimulating after a certain point.”
2. Seeking happiness is no way to live
Carstensen is not a fan of what she calls a “happiness agenda” that’s sprouted up in recent years—it puts too much pressure on meeting an unrealistic goal, and can be surprisingly harmful to mental health: “Seeking happiness is almost doomed to fail,” she says.
“It’s constantly hurting people when we tell them they should be happy and making happiness a goal,” says Carstensen. She adds that there’s also an expectation for partners to make you happy and “if they don’t make you happy, you leave them, and that really makes you unhappy.”
The real key to happiness is learning to process mixed emotions. According to her research, Carstensen says “the richest emotional states we have are the ones with mixed emotions.” People at older age are much better equipped to do this than younger people. They can appreciate the whole experience for what it is, all the good and all the bad and everything in between. As we age, we can feel things such as bittersweetness with a much higher level of understanding.
3. Instead of looking to the future, live in the present
It’s easier said than done. We spend all our formative years thinking about our futures, and the present tends to pass by without our noticing. But living in the moment is an essential part of what makes older people feel content, Carstesen says. Older people tend to focus on and remember more positive than negative information, something she calls the positivity effect.
In her own research, Carstensen has learned that older people have a much easier time living in the moment. This is likely because as we get older, we realize that time is running out eventually, and there isn’t a long future ahead of us to plan for. Therefore, we pay more attention to things as they happen and we struggle much less with being in the present.
Wherever you are in life, though, you can “enjoy the moment you’re in and recognize it while you have it,” says Carstensen.
4. Invest less in the idea of wisdom, more in creativity
The idea of being wise from all your years of life experience is pushed on old people—but there isn’t actually any proof that older generations are wiser than young ones!
“It is true that older people solve hotly charged conflicts better than young people,” according to Carstensen. But this is “less about age and more about perspective and the distance from the event…You sound wise when you say ‘when I was in my 20s or 30s I thought this’ but it’s dependent on the distance from you being that age, not how old you are today.”
Carstensen’s research shows that “when it comes to solving personal problems, new problems, older people don’t do any better than younger people.” This makes sense. If you thought about the same problem for 50 years, of course you would have an easier time solving the issue than when you had first experienced it. New problems are just as hard for us to solve at any age.
So, instead of focusing on wisdom, think about fostering creativity. According to the National Institute on Aging, “participating in the arts may improve the health, well-being, and independence of older adults, and help with memory and self-esteem.” Gerard Puccio, PhD, chair of a college creativity center, suggests that “creativity builds resiliency.”
The best thing you can do in retirement, or any time you are taking a break from work, is to do something related that draws on your expertise, but is different enough that you are still being creative, says Carstensen.
Madeleine, Prevention’s assistant editor, has a history with health writing from her experience as an editorial assistant at WebMD, and from her personal research at university. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience—and she helps strategize for success across Prevention’s social media platforms.