- As we age, we get less emotionally reactive.
- We see things more positively, and think more openly.
- There is less dramatic action inside our bodies, without the cyclical hormonal swings of our younger years.
It may surprise you to learn that older people report being happier, better regulated, and optimistic.1 Why on earth? Experts on aging have offered many explanations. Most involve our dawning realization that there is limited time ahead, which motivates us to savor the time that is left. This shift in perspective can lead us to look for the positive, focus on what is most emotionally meaningful, and take better care of our relationships.2
What is even more surprising and less widely known is that normal, measurable, age-related changes in brain function also help explain our mellowing with age. I will discuss five: more muted body sensations, a less reactive amygdala, increased cortical control, more associative thinking, and waning hormones.
Body sensations are less intense
Neural signals are continuously streaming from our major bodily organs and being responded to by our brains in a process called interoception, which keeps us in physiological equilibrium, thereby ensuring our survival. This miraculous process also generates our consciousness, our emotional awareness, and sense of “self.”
Recent neuroscientific research shows that interoception declines with age,3 which means that our bodies are less aroused by and reactive to various internal sensations. And because our emotions are created out of our body sensations, our emotions also become less volatile.4 For example, it’s been decades since I've experienced the quickened heart-beat and sweaty palms that used to bedevil me during college finals.
The amygdala is less activated
Recent brain scan research reveals a major reason older people become more positive in their outlook. There is a decline in the amygdala5—that part of our brain’s limbic system responsible for emotional reactions, especially to negative stimuli. As we age, therefore, we have fewer negative emotions, particularly anger, thereby boosting our sense of well-being. (Amygdala activation to positive stimuli stays the same across age.)
We have more cortical control
Another line of neuroscientific research argues that older people tend to be more positive because we are able to take more cognitive, higher-brain control of our emotions—to change our focus of attention by directing it toward more positive goals or memories.6
More associative thinking
On the other hand, we also seem to be able to let our brains “go” more as we age. We have a heightened ability to make new connections among ideas from different parts and levels of our brain.7 Studies show that pattern recognition and out-of-the-box thinking improve as we get older. And the fact that we’re more easily distracted as we age may allow us to find novel solutions on unusual byways. This creative new associative ability likely increases well-being.
Our hormones wane
Older female bodies are transformed by menopause in many obvious ways. But it is not often noted that our bodies become “quieter” inside. There is less dramatic action inside the theater of our bodies without the cyclical hormonal swings of our younger years. As a result, I believe, we are actually primed to sense and feel our bodies more deeply and pleasurably. Aging can thus open up a transformative new capacity to truly "live" in our bodies, to feel more embodied. In fact, I believe that some people can only become embodied in older age.8
It may well be that all five explanations are true and working in tandem: that is, a combination of lowered interoceptive awareness, a less reactive amygdala, increased higher-brain control of negative stimuli, improved out-of-the-box thinking, and depletion of our female hormones allows us to have a better regulated and more positive emotional life. Because our bodies are quieter, we are more open to experiences arising from within, even as those experiences at their source are less intense. And while our internal body signals are weaker, our perception and interpretation of them become more complex after many years of trying out different possibilities and learning what works and what doesn’t.
These age-related physiological and perceptual changes, along with the psychological changes in time perspective, allow us to experience our bodies more deeply, pleasurably, and serenely. It's true. Older bodies can be better in significant ways than younger bodies.
.1. Rauch, J. (2019). The Happiness Curve (New York: Picador).
2. Carstenson, L. (2009). A Long Bright Future (New York: Public Affairs).
3. Khalsa, S, et al. (2009). "Interoceptive Awareness Declines with Age," Psychophysiology 46:6: doi.org/:10.1111/j.14692-8986.2009.00859.x
4. MacCormack, J. et al., (2021). "Aging Bodies, Aging Emotions," Emotion 21:2, 227-46. doi.org/10.1037/emo0000699.
5. Cacioppo, J. et al, (2011). "Could an Aging Brain Contribute to Subjective Well-Being?" In: Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind, Eds., A. Todorov, e al.,(Oxford: Oxford University Press). 249-262.
6. Williams, L., et al., (2019). "The Mellow Years?" In: Cognitive and Social Neuroscience of Aging (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press).
Levitin, D. (2020). Successful Aging (New York: Dutton).
Sands, S. (April 2022). The Inside Story (Boulder, Colo: Sounds True).