If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life…

Photo by TheArches, via Flickr.

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.

PS If you wanna smile with a great song stuck in your head for the rest of the day, click here. It always makes me hap­pier to dance with the Flax ladies