The most popular New Year’s resolutions include self-improvement goals such as losing weight, quitting smoking and getting a better job. Surprisingly, the older we get, the less likely we are to make resolutions.
Teens seem to love making them, college-age kids practically abandon them (#YOLO!), young adults pick up on them once again, only to progressively drop resolution-making with age. Why is this? Do we become set in our ways in older age, succumbing to our resolute habits? Or are we more content with ourselves?
Wheelchair or wisdom?
If you ask the average young person what old age brings, chances are they will say, an ailing body, a slower mind, memory loss, and generally a less enjoyable life. The truth is, there is a quite a bit of discrepancy between our expectations of old age and the reality of old age. For example, a recent Pew Research poll found that 57% of younger Americans expected to suffer memory loss after age 65, while the reality is that only 25% of older Americans actually experience memory loss. That’s a 32% difference between our expectations and reality!
Despite our youthful pessimism about growing older, a mounting body of scientific evidence shows that, in many ways, life improves with age. We become happier and less anxious, more adaptive and resilient. We deepen our friendships and expertise, and shift our focus to the positive over the negative. This is even reflected in the rates of depression as they correlate with age. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.5% of adults age 50 and over said they experienced a major depressive episode in 2012. For those 26 to 49, the rate was 7.6%, and for ages 18 to 25 it was 8.9%.
So why shift our focus to the positive? It seems that as people age, we tend to prioritize emotional value and satisfaction, moving us from a restricted and focused view of the world to one that is ever expanding, dynamic and varied. Wait a minute…have we not been told for decades that aging is a general and steady decline in both mind and body functioning? It seems – we were wrong.
Older people favor positive information over negative information, attending to and remembering the "good stuff."
The neuroscience of emotional wisdom
Far from a slow decay of the mind, recent scientific discoveries have shown that human aging is in fact a more complex and malleable process than we ever thought. Crystallized mental capabilities such as vocabulary are quite slow to decline while, fluid capabilities, speed, and memory decrease quicker with aging. And although some brain areas do suffer age-related functional decline, many do not. For example, the amygdala, a brain structure critical for recognizing and processing emotional information, remains relatively stable with age, compared with the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with ‘executive’ functions. And interestingly, older people favor positive information over negative information, attending to and remembering the ‘good stuff,’ much more than younger people, who tend to see the negative information first. In fact, some researchers have named this aging phenomenon the ‘positivity effect.’
Silver linings and silver hair
So, how can we be more like Granny with the rose-tinted glasses? As we enter a new year, the thought of growing older will likely cross many people’s minds. Rest assured that normal healthy aging across different cultures is associated with increased social satisfaction and well-being. But there is a way to raise the emotional quotient (EQ) bar no matter our age – mindfulness training. Several studies have shown that by engaging conscious awareness of the present moments, mindfulness training has the potential to help us regulate our emotions more efficiently. By cultivating receptivity to the experiences of the present moment, different brain systems act in concert to promote emotion regulation rather than emotion reactivity.
When you think about New Year’s resolutions this year, perhaps it makes more sense to appreciate our growth and aging, rather than setting a lofty goal we are apt to miss. In doing so, we honor elderhood as an important life stage and one that can impart wisdom for ourselves and our communities.