Age Makes You Happier - And Poorer

Avoidance Strategies

As the years pass I've noticed I'm increasingly unwilling to expose myself to sources of negative information or emotional stress. So news bulletins, soap operas and anything a film critic might regard as emotionally engaging are increasingly off-limits. Frankly I'd rather watch Guardians of the Galaxy than Moonlight, no matter how worthy the latter.

Slightly to my surprise it turns out that this isn't just me being more than normally antisocial, but is a commonly observed age-related change in preferences. By choice older people will habitually avoid stuff that they find negative. Which goes a long way to explaining a lot of things, including why older nuns tend to be happier and why we should avoid having to do anything difficult - like thinking or active investment - after we've reached 70.

Nun Bothering

The age-related positivity effect is the finding that older people prefer to focus on things that make them feel good rather than ... well, the opposite. Younger people tend to try to gather new information, but as you get older and the clock starts ticking ever louder the preference is to maximize feeling good rather than thinking smart.

To test this Quinn Kennedy, Mara Mather and Laura Carstensen went and bothered a bunch of nuns, who'd already answered some questionnaires about related topics 14 years before. They discovered that the younger nuns got grumpier when pressed about autobiographical details but the older sisters' moods changed for the better. This aligns with another study that shows that older people actively avoid attending to negative information:

"This attentional bias is consistent with older adults’ generally better emotional well-being and their tendency to remember negative less well than positive information."

Shrinking Event Horizons

The clue to this behavior is in the emotional well-being statement - older people tend to be better at emotional self-regulation and part of the way that they do this is to avoid exposing themselves to information that upsets them. Which means that they're less likely to seek out information which contradicts their existing opinions: so neither doddery Democrats nor retired Republicans are likely to let pesky facts change their beliefs.

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Age related positivity effect added to the Big List of Behavioral Biases

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