Earlier in the year I wrote a story for the News@Northeastern about psychology professor Derek Isaacowitz, who is using eye tracking to explore the fact that people older than 60 tend to report more happiness than young adults aged18 to 23.
While plenty of data suggest that older people are happier than younger people, and while plenty of other data suggest that the two groups tend to use different strategies for dealing with emotional stimuli, one persistent question remains: are these things at all related?
“Age differences in attention and memory have been invoked as a possible cause,” said Isaacowitz. “But just because there are age differences doesn’t mean it relates to how people feel. Attention can’t be an explanation for age differences in happiness unless there’s some direct link between what they’re looking at and how they feel.”
New research from Isaacowitz’s lab published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests that they are.
Older adults, the research shows, tend to look at positive images when they are in a bad mood, which Isaacowitz hypothesizes is an attempt to regulate out of that mood. Younger adults, on the other hand, tend to look more at the negative images, possibly using the “interpretive strategy” to regulate, that is, they try to interpret what they’re look at as a way out of the bad mood.
The ability to regulate one’s mood with positive looking patterns doesn’t work for all older adults, however. It seems to work better for those with robust cognitive abilities.
“We tend to say things like ‘older people do this’ and ‘younger people do that’ and ‘people should look at this’ and ‘people should look at that’,” said Isaacowitz. “But it’s really a much more complicated matrix of factors that varies not just as a function of age but also as a function of the other attributes they have, and may vary as a function of the context, or situation they’re in, as well”
Until we have the whole story, we can’t say for certain whether a person should look at one thing over another in order to regulate his or her mood. “If we don’t the full matrix it may not make any sense what we’re doing,” said Isaacowitz. “It may not make any sense, for example, to try and get young adults to try and look at positive images. Maybe that’s not the best pathway for them.”
He sees this research as filling in a piece of the bigger picture, a piece of the matrix.