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Older people are happier | Laura Carstensen | TEDxWomen

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    I know that you know
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    that people are living longer
    and societies are getting grayer.
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    You hear about it all the time.
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    You read about it in your newspapers.
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    You hear about it on your television sets.
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    Sometimes, I'm concerned
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    that we hear about it so much
    that we've come to accept longer lives
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    with a kind of a complacency, even unease.
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    But make no mistake, longer lives can...
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    And, I believe, will improve
    quality of life at all ages.
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    Now to put this in perspective,
    let me just zoom out for a minute.
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    and put the changes
    that we're living through
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    in kind of a perspective.
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    More years were added to average
    life expectancy in the 20th century
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    than all years added
    across all prior millennia
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    of human evolution combined.
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    In the blink of an eye,
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    we nearly doubled the length of time
    that we're living.
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    So if you ever feel like you don't have
    this aging thing quite pegged,
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    don't kick yourself.
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    It's brand new.
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    And because fertility rates fell
    across that very same period
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    that life expectancy was going up,
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    that pyramid that has always represented
    the distribution of age in the population,
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    with many young ones at the bottom
    winnowed to a tiny peak of older people
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    who make it and survive to old age,
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    is being reshaped into a rectangle.
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    And now, if you're the kind of person
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    who can get chills
    from population statistics,
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    (Laughter)
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    these are the ones that should do it.
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    Because what that means
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    is that for the first time
    in the history of the species,
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    the majority of babies born
    in the developed world
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    are having the opportunity to grow old.
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    How did this happen?
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    Well, we're no genetically hardier
    than our ancestors were 10,000 years ago.
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    This increase in life expectancy
    is the remarkable product of culture...
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    The crucible that holds
    science and technology
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    and wide-scale changes in behavior
    that improve health and well-being.
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    Through cultural changes, our ancestors
    largely eliminated early death
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    so that people can now
    live out their full lives.
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    Now there are problems
    associated with aging...
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    Diseases, poverty, loss of social status.
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    It's hardly time to rest on our laurels.
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    But the more we learn about aging,
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    the clearer it becomes
    that a sweeping downward course
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    is grossly inaccurate.
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    Aging brings some rather
    remarkable improvements...
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    Increased knowledge, expertise...
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    And emotional aspects of life improve.
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    That's right, older people are happy.
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    They're happier than middle-aged people,
    and younger people, certainly.
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    (Laughter)
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    Study after study
    is coming to the same conclusion.
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    The CDC recently conducted a survey
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    where they asked respondents
    simply to tell them
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    whether they experienced
    significant psychological distress
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    in the previous week.
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    And fewer older people
    answered affirmatively to that question
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    than middle-aged people,
    and younger people as well.
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    And a recent Gallup poll
    asked participants
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    how much stress and worry and anger
    they had experienced the previous day.
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    And stress, worry, anger
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    all decrease with age.
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    Now social scientists call this
    the paradox of aging.
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    I mean, after all,
    aging is not a piece of cake.
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    So we've asked all sorts of questions
    to see if we could undo this finding.
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    We've asked whether it may be that
    the current generations of older people
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    are and always have been
    the greatest generations.
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    That is that younger people today
    may not typically experience
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    these improvements as they grow older.
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    We've asked,
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    well, maybe older people
    are just trying to put a positive spin
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    on an otherwise depressing existence.
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    (Laughter)
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    But the more we've tried
    to disavow this finding,
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    the more evidence we find to support it.
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    Years ago, my colleagues
    and I embarked on a study
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    where we followed the same group
    of people over a 10-year period.
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    Originally, the sample was aged 18 to 94.
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    And we studied whether and how
    their emotional experiences changed
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    as they grew older.
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    Our participants would carry
    electronic pagers
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    for a week at a time,
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    and we'd page them throughout the day
    and evenings at random times.
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    And every time we paged them,
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    we'd ask them to answer
    several questions...
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    "On a one to seven scale,
    how happy are you right now?"
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    "How sad are you right now?"
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    "How frustrated are you right now?"...
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    So that we could get a sense of the kinds
    of emotions and feelings they were having
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    in their day-to-day lives.
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    And using this intense study
    of individuals,
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    we find that it's not
    one particular generation
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    that's doing better than the others,
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    but the same individuals over time
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    come to report relatively greater
    positive experience.
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    Now you see this slight downturn
    at very advanced ages.
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    And there is a slight downturn.
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    But at no point does it return
    to the levels we see in early adulthood.
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    Now it's really too simplistic
    to say that older people are "happy."
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    In our study, they are more positive.
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    But they're also more likely
    than younger people
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    to experience mixed emotions...
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    Sadness at the same time
    you experience happiness;
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    you know, that tear in the eye
    when you're smiling at a friend.
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    And other research has shown that
    older people seem to engage with sadness
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    more comfortably.
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    They're more accepting of sadness
    than younger people are.
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    And we suspect
    that this may help to explain
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    why older people are better
    than younger people
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    at solving hotly charged
    emotional conflicts and debates.
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    Older people can view injustice
    with compassion,
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    but not despair.
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    And all things being equal,
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    older people direct their cognitive
    resources, like attention and memory,
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    to positive information
    more than negative.
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    If we show older, middle-aged,
    younger people images,
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    like the ones you see on the screen,
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    and we later ask them
    to recall all the images that they can,
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    older people, but not younger people,
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    remember more positive images
    than negative images.
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    We've asked older and younger people
    to view faces in laboratory studies,
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    some frowning, some smiling.
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    Older people look toward the smiling faces
    and away from the frowning, angry faces.
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    In day-to-day life, this translates
    into greater enjoyment and satisfaction.
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    But as social scientists, we continue
    to ask about possible alternatives.
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    We've said, well, maybe older people
    report more positive emotions
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    because they're cognitively impaired.
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    (Laughter)
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    We've said, could it be
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    that positive emotions are simply easier
    to process than negative emotions,
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    and so you switch
    to the positive emotions?
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    Maybe our neural centers in our brain
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    are degraded such that we're unable
    to process negative emotions anymore.
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    But that's not the case.
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    The most mentally sharp older adults
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    are the ones who show
    this positivity effect the most.
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    And under conditions
    where it really matters,
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    older people do process
    the negative information
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    just as well as the positive information.
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    So how can this be?
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    Well, in our research,
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    we've found that these changes
    are grounded fundamentally
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    in the uniquely human
    ability to monitor time...
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    Not just clock time
    and calendar time, but lifetime.
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    And if there's a paradox of aging,
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    it's that recognizing
    that we won't live forever
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    changes our perspective on life
    in positive ways.
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    When time horizons are long and nebulous,
    as they typically are in youth,
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    people are constantly preparing,
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    trying to soak up all the information
    they possibly can,
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    taking risks, exploring.
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    We might spend time with people
    we don't even like
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    because it's somehow interesting.
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    We might learn something unexpected.
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    (Laughter)
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    We go on blind dates.
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    (Laughter)
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    You know, after all,
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    if it doesn't work out,
    there's always tomorrow.
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    People over 50 don't go on blind dates.
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    (Laughter)
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    Not so much.
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    As we age, our time horizons grow shorter
    and our goals change.
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    When we recognize that we don't have
    all the time in the world,
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    we see our priorities most clearly.
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    We take less notice of trivial matters.
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    We savor life.
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    We're more appreciative,
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    more open to reconciliation.
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    We invest in more emotionally
    important parts of life,
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    and life gets better,
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    so we're happier day-to-day.
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    But that same shift in perspective
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    leads us to have less tolerance
    than ever for injustice.
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    By 2015,
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    there will be more people
    in the United States
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    over the age of 60 than under 15.
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    What will happen to societies
    that are top-heavy with older people?
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    The numbers won't determine the outcome.
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    Culture will.
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    If we invest in science and technology
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    and find solutions for the real problems
    that older people face
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    and we capitalize on the very real
    strengths of older people,
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    then added years of life can dramatically
    improve quality of life at all ages.
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    Societies with millions of talented,
    emotionally stable citizens
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    who are healthier and better educated
    than any generations before them,
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    armed with knowledge
    about the practical matters of life
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    and motivated to solve the big issues
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    can be better societies
    than we have ever known.
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    My father, who is 92, likes to say,
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    "Let's stop talking
    only about how to save the old folks
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    and start talking about
    how to get them to save us all."
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
Older people are happier | Laura Carstensen | TEDxWomen
Description:

In the 20th century we added an unprecedented number of years to our lifespans, but is the quality of life as good? Surprisingly, yes! In this talk, psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates that as people get older they become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
11:53

English subtitles

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