We get wrin­kles. Our hair turns gray, or we lose it alto­gether. Our job prospects diminish and our chances of incur­ring dis­ease increase. Researchers across the globe focus their efforts on increasing our life span because so many of us believe get­ting old stinks.

But that may not be so, according to Derek Isaa­cowitz a newly appointed asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology in the Col­lege of Sci­ence. Con­trary to pop­ular opinion, he says, older people are hap­pier than their younger counterparts.

Self-​​report studies of hap­pi­ness typ­i­cally find that older people are hap­pier,” Isaa­cowitz explains. But for the psy­chol­o­gist, who joined the North­eastern fac­ulty after spending a decade at Bran­deis, self-​​reporting is not enough. He wants to know why older people are happier.

To tackle this ques­tion, he employs a state-​​of-​​the-​​art testing method not typ­i­cally used in aging research: eye tracking.

Eye tracking, he says, fol­lows a participant’s eye move­ments by taking 60 snap­shots of his or her pupils each second. Isaa­cowitz cou­ples self-​​reports of mood with eye tracking data to pin­point exactly what a person is looking at while rating his or her mood.

We can ana­lyze data in a moment to say, ‘how does what you’re looking at relate to what you feel?’” Isaa­cowitz says.

Results revealed that older and younger par­tic­i­pants might reg­u­late their emo­tions in vastly dif­ferent ways. As Isaa­cowitz puts it, “One way of reg­u­lating emo­tion is to change your thinking about some­thing, to see some­thing upset­ting and say ‘no’.” This seems to be the strategy of most younger test subjects.

On the other hand, older people tend to look at neg­a­tive images less often, pos­sibly indi­cating that they reg­u­late emo­tion by dis­tracting them­selves from neg­a­tive stimuli.

Isaa­cowitz says this makes sense, since the elderly tend to have fewer resources than the young: “If I made you really tired or gave you some­thing else to do, it would be easier to dis­tract instead of reappraise.”

While Isaa­cowitz’ research has already con­firmed a cog­ni­tive dif­fer­ence between older and younger people, many ques­tions remain about how this dif­fer­ence may relate to the role of age in reg­u­lating day-​​to-​​day emotion.

Isaa­cowitz was eager to join the Affec­tive Sci­ence Insti­tute at North­eastern and help advance the university’s strength in aging research. He says his lab on campus will con­duct a number of new studies, including an analysis of sub­jects in a more nat­ural envi­ron­ment. “We’ll be nicely set up to do that in the lab here,” he says.