By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Contrary to popular belief, emotional health stabilizes and even improves with age. Individuals at age 65 report the lowest rates of depression and greater life satisfaction than for any other age group. Online, elderly “grandfluencers” are proving it.
Social media influencers are almost always younger users with throngs of fans, doling out everything from rants and opinions to endorsements and advice. However, an increasing amount of seniors, 70 years old and up, are attracting young fans by the millions. These “grandfluencers” share health and fitness routines, gardening tips, style and make-up tutorials, and more. Younger fans are thrilled to see seniors mastering TikTok and Instagram, as they gain from the seniors’ life lessons and joie de vivre.
This flies in the face of a common stereotype held of the elderly—that with age comes bitterness, anger, and the transition into a curmudgeon. In his video series The Aging Brain, Dr. Thad Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, explained why emotional health ages like a fine wine.
The Cohort Effect: A Popular Fiction
According to Dr. Polk, studies show a fascinating trend of age and happiness. First, 18- to 25-year-olds were 70% more likely to have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year than those over 50. Another study, which analyzed spoken and written text samples from 3,000 people, found that as people age, they use far fewer negative words and more positive ones, a trend which has continued for 500 years. Why?
“One possibility is that these findings represent what’s called a cohort effect, that is, the impact of being born at a particular time in history,” he said. “If you think about it, you can make a case that life is easier today than it was when our oldest generations were growing up.”
Standards of living and levels of education, as well as health care, have risen dramatically in the last several decades; so, older people may see life today as a cakewalk, leading them to be more positive. The cohort effect posits that the older cohort had different experiences than the younger cohort, and these experiences lead to differences in positivity and emotion.
Unfortunately, Dr. Polk said, comparing people raised in different times can be like comparing apples and oranges. Scientists prefer studying people over time, as they age, to counteract the cohort effect’s limitations, and these longitudinal studies show the same results for aging and happiness.
Socioemotional Selectivity Theory: A Better Idea
On the other hand, Laura Carstensen at Stanford University developed a theory called socioemotional selectivity theory. Dr. Polk believes it’s the most successful explanation for increased emotional health with age. It essentially says that seniors realize life is too short to focus on negative things.
“For young adults, it seems like life will last forever and so they focus a lot on long-term goals,” Dr. Polk said. “They might try lots of different things in order to soak up as much information as they can; they’re willing to spend time doing things they don’t enjoy if they think it will pay off down the road.
“For young adults, goals tend to be future-oriented and knowledge-focused.”
According to Dr. Polk, as we age, our “time horizon,” or how far into the future we look, shortens. Older adults choose to make the most with the time they have, becoming more selective with how they spend that time and energy. They narrow their social networks somewhat to focus on a smaller group of people whose relationships they highly value. This maximizes positive experiences and minimizes negative ones.
“Likewise, older adults’ goals are less about the future and more about making the most of the present,” he said. “They’re more focused on emotional goals like well-being and happiness, rather than knowledge-focused goals related to future achievement.”
Posited in 1990, socioemotional selectivity theory has gained a lot of traction in the scientific community. Grandfluencers may be the most visible evidence of it, to date.