A psychologist says the elderly know a secret to happiness anyone can learn


Would that we could combine the best parts of youth and old age.

Think physical strength plus existential wisdom. Good looks plus the knowledge of what you want in a partner.

Obviously, life doesn't work that way. But I recently came across a potential exception to that rule in "Pre-suasion," psychologist Robert Cialdini's new book on using the art of influence to motivate yourself and others to do what you want.

Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and the CEO and president of Influence at Work, devotes a section of the book to what he calls the "positivity paradox": People tend to be happier when they're older, even as their physical and mental health are deteriorating.

Instead of accepting that phenomenon as intractable reality, Cialdini urges readers to adopt the same strategies older people use to maintain their positive attitude. In other words, to combine the comparative exhilaration of youth with the older person's ability to appreciate it.


The strategy here is simple: Start paying attention to the positive aspects of your life.

There's a growing body of research suggesting that one reason why older adults are better than younger people at staying positive is that they're careful about where they focus their attention. Especially when they're in a sour mood, older people are more likely to indulge in positive memories and thoughts.

In one 2009 study, for example, older adults were more likely than their younger counterparts to direct their attention toward happy faces and away from angry faces displayed on a screen. And older adults who were really good at this skill were most likely to see their mood improve over the course of the experiment.

What does this research imply for you in your daily life? You don't have to avert your eyes from your boss's scowl or pretend you've forgotten about the fight you've had with your partner - that would be unrealistic and likely counterproductive.


Instead, Cialdini takes this research in a clever direction, citing the work of psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky.

Lyubomirsky's strategies for increasing happiness include writing down things you're grateful for every morning, choosing before an event to look on the bright side, and limiting the time you spend perseverating on problems.

Perhaps most importantly, these interventions allow you to be proactive, meaning you set the stage for happiness before a potentially distressing experience.

When Cialdini visited the Business Insider office in September, he told us:

We can recall that every situation that we're in has pluses and minuses, has positive and negative features. We can decide to focus to a greater extent than we normally do on those favorable aspects of the situation. We decide that ahead of time and we wind up feeling more satisfied and happy with our lives.


This isn't at all about forcing yourself to be happy when you're obviously upset, which research suggests can backfire. Instead, it's about giving yourself an opportunity to notice pleasant or uplifting features of your environment that you might otherwise let pass by.

Bottom line: Youth doesn't have to be wasted on the young. Take a tip from Grandpa and look, in advance, on the bright side.