Our guest on the podcast today is Laura Carstensen. She is professor of psychology at Stanford University, where she is the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Professor in Public Policy and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her research focuses on the motivational and emotional changes that occur with age and the influence such changes have on cognitive processing. She is the author of a A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, and her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from West Virginia University.
A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity, by Laura Carstensen, Ph.D.
"Age Advantages in Emotional Experience Persist Even Under Threat From the COVID-19 Pandemic," by Laura L. Carstensen, Yochai Z. Shavit, and Jessica T. Barnes, journals.sagepub.com, Oct. 26, 2020.
"A Life-Course Model for Healthier Ageing: Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic," by Laura L. Carstensen, Ashley Jowell, and Michele Barry, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, October 2020.
"Growing Old or Living Long: Take Your Pick," by Laura L. Carstensen, issues.org, Winter 2007.
"Laura Carstensen's TED Talk: Older People Are Happier," ted.com, April 2012.
"Retire at 80!—So Says University Professor and Longevity Expert," by Perry Brissette, perrybrissette.medium.com, July 4, 2018.
"Opinion: We Need a Major Redesign of Life," by Laura Carstensen, washingtonpost.com, Nov. 29, 2019.
"Longevity and Retirement: An Expert on Aging Explains How Retirement Is Being Redefined," Fidelity Viewpoints, fidelity.com, Feb. 3, 2021.
"Boomers: Less Tied to Friends and Family as Others Are," by Laura L. Carstensen, nextavenue.org, May 31, 2016.
"Exercise Holds Immediate Benefits for Affect and Cognition in Younger and Older Adults," by Candace L. Hogan, Jutta Mata, and Laura L. Carstensen, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, June 2013.
"How Merrill Lynch Is Planning for Its Customers to Live to 100," by Susan Wilner Golden and Laura L. Carstensen, harvardbusinessreview.org, March 4, 2019.
"There's a New Way of Living Thanks to Longevity," wealthchoice.com, May 16, 2019.
"Selective Narrowing of Social Networks Across Adulthood Is Associated With Improved Emotional Experience in Daily Life," by Laura L. Carstensen and Tammy English, researchgate.net, March 2014.
"Leveraging Goals to Incentivize Healthful Behaviors Across Adulthood," by Laura L. Carstensen, Teja Chemudupati, Jessica T. Barnes, Candice L. Hogan, and Sarah Raposo, researchgate.net, July 2020.
"Selective Narrowing of Peripheral Social Networks Predicts Poor Long-Term Cognition in Old Age," by Laura L. Carstensen, Hsiao-Wen Liao, and Yochai Shavit, researchgate.net, November 2019.
"Integrating Cognitive and Emotion Paradigms to Address the Paradox of Aging," by Laura L. Carstensen, researchgate.net, November 2018.
"The Theory Behind the Age-Related Positivity Effect," by Laura L. Carstensen and Andrew E. Reed, frontiersinpsychology.org, Sept. 27, 2012.
"The Positivity Effect: A Negativity Bias in Youth Fades With Age," by Laura L. Carstensen and Marguerite DeLiema, researchgate.net, February 2018.
"Alternative Retirement Paths and Cognitive Performance: Exploring the Role of Preretirement Job Complexity," by Laura L. Carstensen, Dawn C. Carr, Robert Willis, and Ben Lennox Kail, thegerentologist.com, April 2020.
Messaging to Older Adults
"Your Message to Older Adults Is Outdated," by Hal Hershfield and Laura L. Carstensen, harvardbusinessreview.org, July 2, 2021.
Christine Benz: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I'm Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.
Jeff Ptak: And I'm Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.
Benz: Our guest on the podcast today is Laura Carstensen. Dr. Carstensen is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, where she is the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Professor in Public Policy and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her research focuses on the motivational and emotional changes that occur with age and the influence such changes have on cognitive processing. She is the author of a A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. Dr. Carstensen received her bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, and her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from West Virginia University.
Dr. Carstensen, welcome to The Long View.
Laura Carstensen: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Benz: It's great to have you here. I wanted to start by talking about the pandemic. During the pandemic older adults were certainly hit harder than the general population in terms of serious illness and deaths. But beyond the health implications, what does the research so far say about how older adults have been faring during this period?
Carstensen: The research has surprised even the most optimistic of researchers. Older people appear to be doing better emotionally than middle-aged or younger adults. And for the reasons you just mentioned, this is really surprising because they're at greatest risk of the dire consequences, but they seem to be doing quite well emotionally.
Ptak: And why is that? What does your research suggest is the underlying cause?
Carstensen: That's a million-dollar question. I don't know that we have good firm answers, except to say that the findings about emotional well-being are very similar to ones that we saw before the pandemic. So, older people are in better emotional health, mental health than younger people. During the pandemic a lot of people thought, well now's the time where that's going to disappear; we're not going to see those age advantages during a crisis that is targeting older people. So, the surprise was that we still saw these age advantages.
Now, we do have reasons to think that some of the advantage we see in older people, emotionally speaking, is because they tend to look on the bright side of life. Older people are more likely to recall positive events from their autobiographical memories. If you show them images, pictures--some are negative, some are positive--and ask them about them, they remember the positive ones better than the negative ones. And so, we've thought for a long time that part of this advantage we see emotionally in older adults, is because of their perspectives, their focus on what's good, and a disengagement from the negative aspects of life.
But that doesn't mean that there weren't people in the older population who were devastated by COVID, who became very isolated. You picture those people who are living in a nursing home that shut down that said they couldn't have seen their family if they were willing to. There was sheltering in place that was imposed on people. And so, there were people who became very, very isolated and lonely and distressed. And so it's one thing to talk about the trends in the population—and there are, as I said, I'm not backtracking on what I said--that is what the research shows. But we also have to know there's always variability and there were some older people who really were very, very negatively affected.
Benz: We want to follow up on that research later on. But before that, one thing that's kind of vexing if indeed older adults are coming through this period with a more positive outlook is that, everything I've read about happiness in retirement suggests that social connections are absolutely essential. And yet COVID-19 has kind of frayed our social connections to put it mildly. So, what do you think is going on there? How are older adults persisting with positive outlooks, even though one of the things that we know confers happiness hasn't really been happening?
Carstensen: And let me just underscore what you just said: There's nothing more important to happiness than social relationships. And we know from prior research that older people have stronger, better relationships then middle-age and younger people do. So, that's part of what we think is contributing to their well-being. The pandemic did a strange thing for older people and that is that it really shut down life as we knew it before, and particularly so for older adults who needed to isolate and distance even more than other age groups. What a lot of older people did, however, was to focus on their closest relationships, and in many cases had more contact, say with adult children or old friends, than they did prior to the pandemic. So, the pandemic kind of focused--again, I think for all of us--but really focused us on those people in our lives who are the most meaningful.
Ptak: You've done some fantastic path-breaking research on the topic of longevity. And so, we wanted to delve into that a bit. One thing we don't stop to think enough about is just how dramatically longevity rates have increased in the past 100 or 120 years. Can you describe that and discuss the catalysts for a phenomenon that most of us pretty much take for granted?
Carstensen: Yes, it's a great question. And I think that when people really realize just how fast we increased life expectancy, it starts to make sense why so many aspects of older age for ourselves and for society feel tense, don't feel like they quite work. And I think it's because these lives that we're living became so much longer in such a short period of time. So, if we zoom out here, for most of human evolution, life expectancies were somewhere between 18 and 20. So when we were evolving on the African Savannah, life was short. If people made it to adulthood and reproduced, they might hang around a little bit of time before they died. Life was just not, on average, long. And it inched up over the millennia, thousands of years. But even as recently as 5,000 years ago, life expectancy was still 18 to 20, we believe.
And then it starts to inch up in the Bronze Age, it goes maybe to the low 20s. By the Middle Ages, we're seeing life expectancies in Europe in the mid-30s. Fast forward to the United States in 1900, and life expectancy had reached 47. By the end of that same century--100 years now, we're not talking about millennia, we're talking about a century, one century--life expectancy went from 47 to 77, and today it's 79. And so, to put it in perspective, we added more years to average life expectancy in the 20th century than we added across all prior millennia of human evolution combined. In a blink of an eye, in historical terms, we nearly doubled the length of our lives. So, anybody who doesn't feel like they have this ageing thing quite pegged, don't kick yourself, this is brand new to the species.
Benz: Let's talk about the catalysts: healthcare advances, obviously, people are doing less dangerous jobs by and large. What else?
Carstensen: There were so many factors that contributed to longer life expectancies, it really was about changing the way that we lived our lives. There were certainly medical advances. But the medical advances were distributed broadly in the population. So, we came to understand how diseases were spread, but then didn't stop there. We set up public health and made changes to the broader population so that these advances reached everyone. Understanding how viruses spread, and contagious diseases generally speaking, we put in place the systematic disposal of waste, otherwise called garbage collection, and there are historians today who think your garbage collectors have as much to contribute to improved health as your physicians. We also put in place in the nation, in every state, public education. And today, education levels are among the best predictors of quality and length of life in adulthood.
So, we changed many things about the way we live our lives and, yes, they became healthier and longer. Let me add, if I may, that a lot of the effort that was going on in the early part of the 20th century was an effort to reduce deaths among the youngest, the babies. So, one in four of children born in this country in 1900, died before they reached five and many more before they reached 12. So, it was the young ones that were so vulnerable. And that was the concern of society. Our ancestors were not trying to make people live to their 80s and 90s. They were trying to keep young people from dying. But as they did, they generated a more healthful environment. And then those little ones made it past the early critical years and went on to reach old age.
Ptak: For all those gains, it seems like the expansion of life expectancy, it has plateaued a bit. And so maybe you can talk a little bit about why that's so?
Carstensen: One thing to distinguish is life expectancy and life span. Life expectancy is simply the average length of life in a given population. And we generally anchor that to birth. So, we say the average life expectancy from birth is a certain number. And so that's just an arithmetic mean, and it varies a lot around the world, within subgroups within the United States and so on and so forth. And then there's another concept and that's life span. And life span refers to the capacity for a species to live for a certain amount of time, and to our knowledge, life span hasn't changed. We don't know exactly what it is. But there's no real reason to think that we are somehow biologically heartier than our ancestors were 10,000 years ago. What changed is the odds of making it to old age. And so that's really what changed, and those averages are what went up over the 20th century. But our capacity didn't change. So many people think we're now reaching what may be life span capacity, as people make it through their middle years and into their older years. But for the time being, we don't really know how long people can live in terms of capacity.
Benz: Most everyone listening will be familiar with the factors that tend to be associated with living longer: family history, diet and exercise, not smoking and so on. Are there any factors associated with longer life spans that are surprising or might be surprising to the general population keeping passing attention to this?
Carstensen: Yes, and you're completely right that some of the obvious ones are, try to stay healthy, don't smoke, don't drink too much, get some good genes going. Although, we have learned that genes are not as important as we thought they were to life expectancy. The way we live our lives, lifestyles contribute much more to how long we live. One of the surprising contributors to life expectancy, in my view, has been purpose in life. Those people who feel like they matter to a cause or to other people to their families, those people who have a real sense of strong purpose, live longer than people who don't, controlling for health and lifestyle and drinking and smoking. So, you control for all those variables. And the people who say, "There's a reason for me being here," are ones who do better and live longer.
Ptak: Maybe you can talk about the connection between wealth and longevity. Obviously, wealth shouldn't be mistaken for purpose. But what leads to any connection between them? Is it mainly access to education and things like better health care, or are there other factors?
Carstensen: That's a great question. As you noted, education and wealth tend to travel together. People who have high levels of education are more likely to have higher incomes. And so, it's been difficult to tease those things apart very well. But sociologists have done a good job of it, statistically anyway, and it looks like a lot of what contributes to people living healthier longer is education. What helps people live longer after they get sick tends to be wealth. So, both of these--the wealth and education are confounded is the take-home message here for most of us, but education seems to be a better predictor than money for staying healthy. But once you get sick, as most of us do at some point in life, then wealth/income predicts better than education, how quickly you will decline.
Benz: So at a certain level of wealth do we max out on the longevity benefits--wealth and education, I should say--or are the wealthiest and most educated among us also the most likely to live the longest?
Carstensen: They're certainly correlated at the population level. And there are some conflicting findings in the literature about how much money contributes to life expectancies. There are some people who think it kind of levels past a certain level of income. Say you are upper-middle class, you don't see a lot of increase as you get into the very super wealthy. There are some other studies that find, however, that with every $10,000 of income, people live longer. So, there's some disagreement here. And then most studies aren't really including those people who live in austere poverty. And if you include those people, clearly living in poverty takes a big hit on life expectancy, not a big surprise there. So, it kind of depends on what groups you're looking at. And as I say, there's some disagreement about it. But at the general population level, yeah, having money helps people live longer, it predicts living longer.
Ptak: To build on something you mentioned a moment ago, focusing on that opposite extreme of the wealth spectrum--life expectancies in the U.S. had begun to decline for people at the lowest income levels. What are some of the reasons that this is happening? And do we have a longevity divide in the same way we have an income gap?
Carstensen: Yes, and yes, we do. Many of your listeners will have seen these headlines prior to COVID, where we saw life expectancy fall in the United States. And I'm glad you asked this question, because I think there is some misunderstanding about it. And including within the scientific community, some people have taken this decline in life expectancy as somehow meaning that, again, we've reached the limits of how long we can live. And now we're even seeing it tick down. But if we look at the reasons for the life expectancy decline in the United States, it's really being driven by particular subpopulations, mostly in the Appalachian regions, some southern parts of the country, where we see high rates of drug use and poverty. And we also see higher rates of homicide and suicide. And so, the kinds of factors that are contributing to this tick downward in life expectancy in this country are not due to some general shift downward. But rather, again, if we think of this as just an average, we're putting in more low numbers into that set of numbers that we calculate the average based on, and these are due to preventable kinds of problems and consequences.
Benz: We often hear about increasing rates of longevity discussed as kind of a scary thing that programs like Social Security and Medicare are at risk of running out, that we won't have enough caregivers to assist our older population, and so on. Many of those issues we've discussed at length on the podcast previously, but you think that there are some positives associated with longevity. And I'm hoping you can talk about what some of those are.
Carstensen: I am frankly aghast when people say, "Oh, this is bad that we're living longer." And what this means is that we're not dying. That's not a bad thing. Just about any way you look at it, this is good. So, what our ancestors did in the 20th century was really to nearly reduce premature death, greatly premature death. That was the accomplishment. And so now people are having a chance to live out their lives. Now, we were handed these 30 extra years of life in the 20th century with no strings attached. It was like here, our ancestors hand us more time and more time is of course fabulous. It means more time to chase our dreams and realize our goals and spend with our loved ones. This is time. And so, it's a great gift and we should not forget that.
Where the problems originate is really now in this mismatch between the length of our lives and the culture that supports us and guides us through life. And in that culture are included behavioral practices--how we save, how we work, when we retire--but also programs like Social Security and Medicare, which were premised on an age distribution in the population that no longer exists. So those programs are premised on the idea, the assumption, which was a great assumption to make in early 20th century, was that you got a lot of young people and not very many old people. Well, then you can develop a policy based on that. And that's our problem today is that there's this mismatch between the policies and the demography.
It doesn't mean, however, that there isn't a way to live and there aren't policies that could be based on more rectangularized age distributions; it just means that we haven't done that yet. And so, there is a real urgency. There is a crisis on the horizon, by the way, if we do nothing, if we don't change the way we live, if we don't rethink these policies or practices, we're in trouble. But to say we're living too long, is to me putting the emphasis on the wrong problem. The problem is we aren't changing fast enough.
Ptak: I know it could be a whole other show in its own right, but is there a policy prescription that you subscribe to or prefer in trying to bridge that divide that you just described?
Carstensen: I'm not going to advocate for a policy per se. I do believe, however, and we're seeing signs of it already that for most people, the only real solution to living much longer past traditional retirement age is to not retire, is to continue to work. And so, if we went from a life expectancy rate of 47, to a life expectancy of 79, and we're headed to even longer lives, it means that many people are going to face 30- and 40-year retirements. There are very few people in the country--as my colleague at Stanford, John Shoven, always says--who can save enough money working 40 years to not work for another 30 or even 40. So, for most people, the idea, and by the way, let me say also, most governments can't really afford to do that. I would say it's also not good for individuals or countries to retire your population for decades--this doesn't make a lot of sense.
What I would like to see us do would be to begin to have serious conversations about new ways to work, so that we work more years but fewer days in a week, fewer hours in a day. A life of work, where we work part time during some phases of life, like when parents have young children and then full time and other times where we go back to school. We take sabbaticals, not just professors but all of us. And so that we could really build a new way of working that helps us financially. But the reason I like this approach is work is good for people. And it helps us in so many other ways. So that's the kind of change I think that we need to get serious about. And it means that we need individuals to think about it, policymakers and employers to think about ways to do this so that people can work longer, but more flexibly; longer but in new ways, new amounts. And then I think we're going to see much better quality of work life and work/family balance.
Benz: I wanted to follow up on your assertion that working longer is good for us, continuing to work is good for us. Can you talk about that from a mental and physical health perspective? It seems kind of hard to disentangle the two things about whether working longer helps people live longer. And is it simply that if they were healthier, they're able to work longer? It all gets a little bit mixed up, but can you discuss what the research says about what working longer does for us?
Carstensen: Yes, so work for many people is a primary source of purpose in life. So, having other people who need you, an organization that you're contributing to is good for people. Getting up and getting out of bed and getting dressed and going out the door is good for physical exercise. People who are working are more likely to be physically active. Another piece of work is that people who are participating in the workforce have much more social interaction, and they have more friends. And so, we also see work as serving that kind of a social, psychological, emotional source. And for most people, work provides the most reliable source of cognitive stimulation. So, we find that people who are in the workforce do better cognitively as they age than people who retire early. So, there are many benefits to work.
And now, if I can hold the floor just another minute.
Benz: Of course. The floor is yours.
Carstensen: I can hear groans, even though I can't see your audience. When I say these things about work, and that we should work longer, and maybe we should work always through almost all of our lives, people always go, "Oh please." But if we rethink what that means, like we're going to work better. So, we work in a really awful way, let me say in this country; we work way too much. And people don't take vacations, American workers don't go on vacation. Not like other countries where you take August off. We work all the time, and a lot of Americans are working two jobs to make ends meet. The wages are insufficient, so they have to work. So, my point is, for many people we're working like dogs, for decades, and you say to them, "Now let's do that forever, let's never retire." And, of course, that would be miserable.
But that's not what I'm suggesting. I'm suggesting we change the way we work. We work in a much more healthful way. And we work longer, but that would address so many of these issues. You don't have to work 50 hours a week to have friends at work; you could work 10 hours a week and you could have friends at work. Many of the kinds of benefits that we see from work we would get anyway, from much more sane approaches to work. And, again, fewer days in a week, fewer hours in a day.
Ptak: What other ideas, since we're on the topic, do you have for working longer and liking it? You just mentioned a few of those where maybe you play around with the format of the work week in order to derive more satisfaction from what you do but not wear yourself out in the process. Are there other models that you've seen applied in practice that seem to work especially well and that you're fond of?
Carstensen: The other way that we should change work is to be able to cycle in and out of work. And we have a kind of a rigid structure for most employers, so most kinds of work don't have options where you could go to 12 hours a week and then back to 40 hours a week. And, with that kind of flexibility, there are a lot of older workers who say they want to retire because they want flexibility. But if they had options where they could continue to work with fewer hours, being more flexible, then they'd be happy to do that. If we look at younger ages, the most unhappy people in the workforce are parents of young children. And that's because they want to be good parents, and they want to be good workers, but they're conflicting. Every day they have to make a decision: Am I going to be good to my kid? Am I going to be good at work? And so they're making those kinds of choices. So, I think flexibility is something that we need.
And by the way, women who drop out of work to just be full-time mothers and homemakers and caregivers for their children are more likely to be clinically depressed than those mothers who are straddling work and childcare. So, there's something good about being able to get out and be with other people and do different things; we've just got the wrong ratios to this right now. And we also need to change education. So, we need to have ways that people can continue learning. If we're going to work for 60, 70 years, doesn't make any sense to end our education in our early 20s, and then assume that you're good to go for decades. So, we need to think of ways that we can build learning into both work life, but also just life so that we're continually learning, which, again will be good for our brains, which will be good for our performance.
Benz: And this idea in your mind really cuts across income levels. I think some people have the sense that it's kind of a highbrow thing to work longer and be a consultant or work in philanthropy or whatever. But you think that it's scalable, really, across income levels and across professions.
Carstensen: Yes. And I fully agree with where I think your question is grounded, that I think the benefits will be better, it will be greater. Let me say the benefits will be bigger for people who are at the lower end of the income stream. Because for people today who are educated, affluent, wealthy, they do quite well as they age. And even if they do fully retire, people who have planned well and have enough money and have enough resources can still create lives that are engaging and stimulating and interesting. It's people who don't have those kinds of resources who actually suffer the most from leaving the workforce. We find in one study that Dawn Carr and Bob Willis and I published a couple years ago that people who retire early take a cognitive hit, essentially. So, their cognition, if you follow them out years into the future is not quite as good as those people who stay in the workforce. The people who take the biggest hit are the people at the lowest income stream. And again, I think that's because people who have more assets, more resources still have stimulating environments, whereas for many people work is their primary source of stimulation. So, yeah, I think this is going to help all of us actually to work differently to work better; longer, but better.
Ptak: I wanted to shift, if I may, to talk about another dimension of retirement, which is the living environment and ask you what kinds of living situations tend to contribute to people being happier and thriving later in life, it seems that there is a lot of discussion about things like age-segregated housing, and whether that makes sense, particularly given the experience of people in long-term care settings during COVID. So, what are your thoughts on living situation? How that contributes to people being happier and thriving later in life?
Carstensen: Yeah, it's a great question. And frankly we don't know the answer. And the reason for that is that people tend to be relatively happy with their living situations. If they live at home, they say they're happy to live at home; if they live in a retirement community, they're happy. And the reason is, because there's a selection if that compares. So, people choose mostly where they want to live, and that's what makes them happy. So, it's hard to tease that apart. In other words, we haven't had a study done, and hopefully we never will, where we're going to randomly assign people to different kinds of living arrangements, and then look at happiness. And that's the study that you would have to do to really say, "Living there made people happier."
So by and large, people are self-selecting into living arrangements that are satisfying for them or best for them. Now, that's a little different than if when we get to assisted living, where a lot of people go not because they chose to live in a place that had nursing assistance available, but rather because they're pretty sick. And it wasn't the most appealing move; it was that they were afraid they couldn't manage on their own. So that's a different kind of a situation. But if we talk about retirement communities and age-segregated communities, versus living in a neighborhood on your own, then we say people are happy with both of those kinds of arrangements.
Benz: So how do you see living situations for older adults evolving as the years go by? Especially because we know that many older adults are quite undersaved for retirement. Do you think we'll see more of these community housing situations with people living together in groups? What trends do you see in that front?
Carstensen: I do see some silver linings related to people's need for other people--to rely on other people, that is. We do see efforts to share resources, for example. And we see that across the income spectrum, by the way. Although at the very top you don't really need to share resources so much. So, let me back up here for a minute, there is a movement in the country called Villages. Now, it's not The Villages--there's one particular retirement community in Florida. It's not that. At least that's not what I'm talking about. There is a movement in the country for groups of older people who are living pretty much on their own to share resources. And so, there is an effort to say, well we would all like to have our groceries delivered, and we all live near one another, and some old folks got together and said why don't we do this together. Or I need to get my hair done, and if you're going to get your hair done too, why don't we just get the hair cutter to come to our place, and people have done that sort of thing. So, they pool resources and find that they can get better care, better services. And we do see that kind of an effort going.
I also think that we'll see some people choosing to live at least close by to friends if they don't have family. 20% of women today don't have children. So that means, a lot of men aren't going to have children either. And as we age, there's a lot of concern about families and without family who's going to take care of you. And I think if we zoom out and look at humans, we see that humans, we make families, we do need other people. But those families don't have to be biological. There are friendship-based families that have very strong tight connections. And I think we will come to see people helping one another out. I don't want to misrepresent this; it'll be challenging for a lot of people. And it isn't clear that your neighbor, who might bring you chicken soup when you're not feeling too well, is going to be willing to quit their job when you get Alzheimer's disease to take care of you.
So, there are there are issues that that are coming. But I do think we'll see new ways of managing, because people have to, and we tend, we as a species, tend to be pretty resourceful in finding new ways to live, when we need to, when the pressure is there to do it.
Benz: You touched on some of the factors that tend to be correlated with happiness later in life. A sense of purpose you identified as well as these social interactions. Can you talk about other things that are associated with greater happiness later in life, and then also the opposite, maybe things that people think might confer happiness that when you look at the data, you really don't see a strong connection with happiness?
Carstensen: Let me back up a bit and think about money again. We were talking earlier about having more wealth is good for people. It isn't the money. It's what money gets you. It allows you to make connections, it allows you to be with other people you care about. So, it's more about being able to have a sense of community and to be part of a group. And part of something larger than yourself. That's the sense of purpose. Those are the important things. Now people who have a lot of wealth are able to do that better than say somebody who retires, lives alone in a studio apartment in a neighborhood with high crime rates. Harder for them to do that, harder for them to get out. But it isn't necessarily money per se. It's what money gets you, it's what money buys. And that's more flexibility and more access. So, the same things that make younger people happy, make older people happy. Feeling like they're making a difference. Being around people they love and care about. And being healthy, health matters a lot to happiness. It's really hard to be happy when everything hurts or when you're feeling very sick and in pain. So, all of those things contribute to happiness, to well-being.
Benz: And how about things that tend to detract from happiness later in life?
Carstensen: Well, I am a boomer and so I remember Janis Joplin well, and one line in a song that has always stuck with me is "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." And for a lot of us in midlife, again when we're working way too hard, and have way too much to do, are just yearning for the day that we could wake up and say nobody needs me. And that's a terrific thing for some Sunday mornings. But it's not a terrific thing for decades, so to feel like you now are free, and you don't need anybody, and nobody needs you, is not good for well-being in the long haul. It is very good for a few days off in the year, but it's not a good way to live for the long haul. So, I think it really is staying involved in communities and families and friendships, work environments, those are good for people. And so, it's the flip side of it is pulling out of all of it and that's not good.
I want to throw in one other thing that is a little bit surprising to people about well-being and that's just how helpful exercise is to well-being. In fact, many geriatricians I know say that, if you could put exercise in pill form, it would be the most prescribed and the most expensive medication there is. Because exercise does a lot for our brains, it does a lot for our muscles and our strengths. These are the obvious things. But it also is really good for emotional well-being. People who exercise--and I don't mean exercise, like in some extreme way--just getting out for a walk, it really improves your mood. So emotional well-being is related, is associated with getting out of bed, get dressed, go outside and get some sunshine that's good for mental health.
Ptak: If I may, I did want to shift and talk about another facet of our later years, which is cognitive decline. And increasing rates of longevity are correlated with higher rates of cognitive decline, the longer we live, the more likely we are to experience it. So, the question is, how should people reconcile those things? Because it does seem somewhat discouraging if you manage to live a long time, because you've taken care of your health and done some of the other salutary things that you've described, you're still more likely to experience cognitive decline?
Carstensen: True. Let me say that exercise and education, predict not getting dementia. So those are good for people's cognitive health as well. But that said, you're absolutely right. You can do everything right. And you may have gotten dealt some bad genes, and you still could end up facing significant cognitive decline at advanced ages. My message to your audience: there is support. The National Institutes of Health investing in cures for diseases like Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. We need to find cures for these diseases. And the only way around it that I know of is really to invest in science at this point in time and find cures. Sometimes it helps us to, again, zoom out a little and see how relatively recently we face these kinds of diseases, because we didn't have many old people. When 4% of the population was over 65, as it was just 100 years ago, dementia was not a big problem for society or a lot of people. It happened, but it wasn't the looming sort of threat that it is today for society and individuals. And so we need to rethink where we put our money and what we invest in and what we need cures for as we think about health. And that's one that'd be at the top of my list; we need to find a cure for that.
Benz: You referenced earlier positivity bias, this tendency of older adults to bring a more positive outlook to things, to remember things, the positive things versus dwelling on the negative and that has maybe helped them through this period of COVID. But can you talk about whether there are any potential downsides to that? One thing I've seen on that topic is that potentially it leaves older adults more vulnerable to being swindled and that they're more trusting in their fellow human beings. Can you talk about that piece of it?
Carstensen: Yes, that's a really good point. And my research group has looked into that specifically, because that was one of our concerns. If you're focused on the positive, you might think that charming young man who comes to your door every day to sell you a new policy that you bought just last week is charming, and why not talk to him and forget to call the police, for example, which you should be doing. There's certainly a downside to positivity, when positivity is not indicated. We do have some reassuring evidence, however, that this positivity effect is not fixed. It's not based on some neural decline or neural development, but rather it appears to be related to goals. And so the human brain doesn't operate like a computer. We don't take in all information evenly, but rather we see, hear, remember information in our environments that's relevant to our goals. Our thinking about what's happening with the positivity effect is goals change. Older people are saying "My goal is to focus on the good side of life. I want to enjoy life; I want to experience meaning." And that leads to people seeing the positive.
Now, this is my long-winded way to say “oui.” A professor at Wash U, Tammy English, who was a postdoc in my lab, years and years ago, did a study where we looked at people's attention to positive and negative information, if they were sick and they were viewing health information. And those people did focus on the negative. My point is, I think people are looking at the positive because it's consistent with their goals to feel good. But when their goal is about something that requires negative information, they can and do make that shift to pay attention to the negative. So, it's not fixed, but it is a default. And yes, I do believe it can get people in trouble at times. But I also think it's the kind of thing that when people are aware of it, they can refocus their efforts and think about the negative and the positive.
Ptak: You've talked about the influence of social networks, and the importance of that to levels of satisfaction in retirement. How do people tend to change their approach to their social networks later in life?
Carstensen: That's a great question. At least my group thought it was a great question, because we've done a lot of research on it. It looks like social networks expand early in adulthood greatly. So, from 20 to 30, they just get bigger. And we think what's happening is we're collecting people, a lot of people who play different roles and serve different functions for our lives early. And so, we end up with these very large social networks, probably by the end of our 30s and beginning of our 40s. They include, like the parents of your children's friends, and there are a lot of people in these networks. And then what tends to happen after about 40, or 40s to 50s, you start to see these networks get smaller, and they continue to get smaller into very advanced ages.
When we began our research on this topic, there was a lot of concern about that narrowing of the social network, they said, wait, you know, if social relationships are what make people happy, and you have fewer of them than that's putting older people at risk. But to make a long story at least a little bit shorter, it looks like what happens is that people 50 and up come to hone their social networks, they prune their social networks, so that they remove the people who are not that important to them and retain those people and relationships that are very important to them. Overall, the network quality of older people is better than younger people. That is that if you look at the social network of somebody in their 70s, they've got a lot of well-known people, friends, family members who they really care about, their favorites in the family and not so much the ones that aren't the favorites. And that's what the network looks like. So there's a greater density of meaningful social partners in older people's networks than younger people's.
Benz: So how about for introverts? They always say if you prefer to be by yourself, or if you need to do that to recharge, then you're an introvert. What about people like that, who even when they're younger, did not derive a lot of energy from being around lot of people or any people? Does that relegate them to being less happy in retirement? What does the research say about that?
Carstensen: No, it doesn't. And we have looked at that question specifically, and we don't see personality differences in it. What we do see are that if you're an extroverted 20-year old, you'll probably have a larger social network when you're 70 than an introvert in your 20s, when you're 70. So, there is still a relative kind of shift, but we see this kind of pruning going on in extroverts and introverts. The important thing to keep in mind for introverts is, introverts need other people, too. It's just a different type of interaction that introverts desire. Say a cocktail party for an introvert is not a positive kind of an experience--it wears you out, it makes you tired. Whereas an extrovert might love that kind of stimulation. But it isn't the case that introverts aren't people who need other people; it's just they may need fewer, they may be more selective. And in many cases, their networks might be better for what they need. We build our networks around what our preferences are, and the older we get, the more flexibility, the more degrees of freedom, I think we have to be able to build those networks as we like, as opposed to the ones that are imposed on us.
Ptak: We interviewed Professor Hal Hershfield for the podcast recently, and one topic we discussed was your research on messaging to older adults. How is the depiction of older adults and messaging to them often wide off the mark?
Carstensen: Yes, Hal Hershfield is fabulous. He's done fabulous work on this topic too. Most of the messaging that we see occurring and advertising that is targeting older people makes a presumption about who older people are. And that presumption most often is that older people are frail, lonely, vulnerable, sad. And older people largely these days are not frail, they're not lonely, they're not sad. And so, any advertiser will know you want to know your audience, and that you should match your message to the goals of that audience. And I think there's a lot of mismatch there. When people think of older people, and what comes to mind is somebody who might need diapers, that's not going to get you a lot of attention from many older people--the vast majority, let me say, of older people in the population. So that's a problem.
The other piece of it is that we tend to market to older people with a certain degree of concern. That's what comes through, it's “Oh, I'm so sorry, you're so frail, we're going to help you. Buy my product, you'll be helped.” And again, when we think about the positivity effect, that in the message that older people are particularly interested in. And so, framing even challenges are negative things as positive can be good. Physicians may want to speak to a patient who has a bad diagnosis in terms of, “We need to talk about this. Good news we got it early.” Or “Good news, we found it,” and then you go on. But older people will tend to positive more than negative. And they, like any other group, will resonate more to messages that seem to capture who they are, as opposed to a stereotype.
Benz: So, if we have financial advisors listening, and I know we probably do, can you give them some thoughts on what sort of messaging might connect with older adults? That sounds like positivity, for sure, not casting them as having problems. What what other things should they keep in mind if they want to reach older adults?
Carstensen: Yes, positivity in terms of framing and the messages. I think in terms of wealth advising one frequent problem is the advisors talk about money more than goals. So money, as we've said in our conversation earlier, is really not about the money. It's about what it gets you, what it allows you to do. And so, to get to know clients and what's important to them. What will make them happy? To help clients think about what goals they want to pursue in retirement, that's going to help them understand as individuals and also the client/advisor relationship better, to know what they need, in order to realize those goals.
So, I think it's talking about life, and it's talking about retirement, and what those years will look like, what they want them to look like. And I got to say, there are an awful lot of people who don't think about retirement in terms of their lives until about a year after they retire. And that's not good to have that be the first time you start to think about your plans. But we tend not to. We do a lot of planning up to retirement then we kind of go “Done, don't need to plan anymore!” But we do.
Benz: Well, Dr. Carstensen, this has been a fascinating discussion. We so appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to be with us today.
Carstensen: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk to both of you.
Ptak: Thanks again.
Benz: Thanks for joining us on The Long View. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe to and rate The Long View from Morningstar on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Ptak: And @Syouth1, which is S-Y-O-U-T-H and the number 1.
Benz: George Castady is our engineer for the podcast and Kari Greczek produces the show notes each week.
Finally, we'd love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or a guest idea, please email us at TheLongView@Morningstar.com. Until next time, thanks for joining us.
(Disclaimer: This recording is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Opinions expressed are as of the date of recording. Such opinions are subject to change. The views and opinions of guests on this program are not necessarily those of Morningstar, Inc. and its affiliates. Morningstar and its affiliates are not affiliated with this guest or his or her business affiliates unless otherwise stated. Morningstar does not guarantee the accuracy, or the completeness of the data presented herein. Jeff Ptak is an employee of Morningstar Research Services LLC. Morningstar Research Services is a subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. and is registered with and governed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Morningstar Research Services shall not be responsible for any trading decisions, damages or other losses resulting from or related to the information, data analysis, or opinions, or their use. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. All investments are subject to investment risk, including possible loss of principal. Individuals should seriously consider if an investment is suitable for them by referencing their own financial position, investment objectives and risk profile before making any investment decision.)