Even as certain mental skills decline with age—what was that guy’s name again?—scientists are finding the mind gets sharper at a number of vitally important abilities. In a University of Illinois study, older air traffic controllers excelled at their cognitively taxing jobs, despite some losses in short-term memory and visual spatial processing. How so? They were expert at navigating, juggling multiple aircraft simultaneously and avoiding collisions.
People also learn how to deal with social conflicts more effectively. For a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Michigan presented “Dear Abby” letters to 200 people and asked what advice they would give. Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.
It turns out that managing emotions is a skill in itself, one that takes many of us decades to master. For a study published this year, German researchers had people play a gambling game meant to induce regret. Unlike 20-somethings, those in their 60s didn’t agonize over losing, and they were less likely to try to redeem their loss by later taking big risks.
These social skills may bring huge benefits. In 2010, researchers at Stony Brook University analyzed a telephone survey of hundreds of thousands of Americans and found that people over 50 were happier overall, with anger declining steadily from the 20s through the 70s and stress falling off a cliff in the 50s.
This may be news to people who equate being old with being sad and alone, but it fits with a body of work by Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at Stanford. She led a study that followed people ages 18 to 94 for a decade and found that they got happier and their emotions bounced around less. Such studies reveal that negative emotions such as sadness, anger and fear become less pronounced than in our drama-filled younger years.
Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer and co-workers interviewed about 1,200 older people for the book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. “Many people said something along these lines: ‘I wish I’d learned to enjoy life on a daily basis and enjoy the moment when I was in my 30s instead of my 60s,’” he says. Elderly interviewees are likely to “describe the last five or ten years as the happiest years of their lives.”
“We have a seriously negative stereotype of the 70s and beyond,” says Pillemer, “and that stereotype is typically incorrect.”