Dr. Laura Carstensen is an award-winning scientist at Stanford University who has spent her life’s work on one of the defining issues of our era: older adulthood and developmental psychology in the second half of life. Even a cursory glance at population demographics will show the global increase in longevity and the growing size of our older adult population. Dr. Carstensen continues to be at the forefront of scientists who study social and emotional changes as we get older and, in particular, how those changes are mechanistically related to our sense of the anticipated time we have in our lives.
Dr. Carstensen introduces herself:
While Dr. Carstensen has forged an unique path with impressive scholarly contributions, she was born into an academic family to a father who was a notable scientist (and National Academy of Engineering inductee), Dr. Edwin Carstensen. His impressive scholarship and involvement in academic life provided some guidance and support to her — albeit in different fields of study. She recalls a little about her father and the experience of her childhood in this next excerpt:
Dr. Carstensen recalls her father with deep affection and clearly cherished the opportunities she had to to spend time with him. This anecdote also makes apparent her adventurous spirit, and the wild (or scientific?) impulse to test his supposition that the only thing flammable in his lab was the gas. Challenge accepted and lesson learned! Between visits to the lab during those occasional weekend trips and the esteem of her father, as a child Laura must have been destined to pursue a career in science. One might think that she’d have thrown herself into academics early with an abiding love of school, her coursework, and the intellectual world. Except that she didn’t. As a teenager Laura was perhaps a bit more wild and a bit less academically oriented.
In this excerpt, Dr. Carstensen recalls why she went into psychology and decided to study aging.
Two days after graduation she weds her teenage sweetheart! Moreover, Laura spent her teenage life scrambling to do her morning classes at high school school followed with an 8-hour shift serving food in the evening! It must have been grueling. This was the early 1970‘s and there was a tragic war in Vietnam, an emerging counterculture with new ideas, and young Laura saw herself as anti-establishment and their misdirected ideas. She wanted to get out and make her own way, and that’s exactly what she did. At least, that’s she did for a while. She married, she started her family, she found independence from her family and the confines of furthering her education.
In a horrible and, yet, oddly serendipitous twist, Laura was in a debilitating motor vehicle accident that rendered her bed-bound and healing in rehab for many months. It was during this time that her father facilitated her completion of a college course (Psychology). In an act of devotion to his daughter during her rehab, he attended each lecture, recorded them, brought the recording to Laura, and then presented those recordings to enable her to complete the course. Laura wasn’t yet an enrolled college student, her father was mid-career and in demand for his own seminal acoustics research, but together they saw this course through to its completion.
And what did she want to study? That, too, was serendipitous albeit partially by the design of whichever nurse (or nurses) arranged the logistics of her rehab. Laura was tasked by the nurse to converse with the older women who were in the beds adjoining her, and also going through rehab. She befriended these women, learned about them, watched them interact with their families, and became fascinated by the social and personal changes of late life. The motor vehicle accident that Laura experienced was horrible, life-threatening, and painful. The outcome of that experience changed the trajectory of Laura’s life as she spent time with her father, found her life’s passion, and got started in Psychology.
After she left rehab and returned to better health, Laura began formally attending University of Rochester and sought out experiences to learn more about aging. At Rochester, Laura worked on some developmental and aging issues with with Prof. Susan Whitbourne. Dr. Whitbourne had just completed her PhD in 1974 at Columbia University before starting at Rochester, and presented an exciting research interaction to further bolster Laura’s involvement in Psychology and Aging. (Notably, Dr. Whitbourne, has had a tremendous career investigating the changes in cognition and the development of personality across adulthood and into late-life). To complete her bachelor’s degree, Laura had the opportunity to do a senior thesis with Dr. Whitbourne on the relationship between mental health and functional status in older adults by interviewing residents of a nursing home. From there, Laura went on to graduate study at the University of West Virginia which had one of the few programs on aging. She completed her PhD with mentor Dr. William Fremouw, a forensic Psychologist, and gained a background in clinical and developmental approaches to aging.
Dr. Carstensen reflected on the field of aging and how her perspective may have been forged from this clinical-developmental approach in her background:
Whatever the study of aging might or might not reveal, in the decades prior to the 1970’s most studies of aging focused on older adults in nursing homes and burdened with the highest levels of impairment. Consequently, the early theories of aging emphasized impairments, decrements, and the toll of aging on physical and cognitive capacities. In contrast, Dr. Carstensen started her academic life befriending those older women with whom she roomed while in rehab. From there she gained decades of experience working with older adults in counseling and more mundane situations — outside of nursing homes. Her vantage was of healthier older adults, often those who were living independently. There are pains with aging, and her clients had significant challenges, nonetheless Dr. Carstensen’s perspective offered insight as to changes that might occur in healthy aging and the experience of older adults who were living independently outside of nursing homes.
One of the prominent ideas of lifespan development that has emerged from Dr. Carstensen’s career has been Socioemotional Selectivity Theory. This theory clarifies how one’s perspective of time in their life might relate to one’s goals, attachments, and needs for emotional gratification. In the following excerpt, Dr. Carstensen discusses how over many years of research she came to develop this theory:
The emphasis in Socioemotional Selectivity Theory is not the years of age for a person, nor the stage of life, per se, but rather how does an individual perceive his or her time in life? Does she see many years ahead, with many new and important life events pending? If this is a person’s focus then she might emphasize new information and seeking novelty. Does she see a limited number of years ahead and, therefore, a need to optimize the value of ones current interactions and emotional choices? If this is a person’s focus then she might emphasize established relationships and interactions that maximize emotional satisfaction. One’s sense of the time of their life can change emotional goals. That theory has been borne out of keen observation and several dozen lines of investigative experiments from Dr. Carstensen and her colleagues.
She describes some of that research and the related Positivity Effect of aging in this next excerpt:
When one views age-related changes through the lens of time, and the focus on the time of one’s life, it opens up many possibilities. The Positivity Effect from Drs. Mara Mather, Susan Charles, and Carstensen works beautifully with that perspective. As she describes, this effect is one of focus: an increased valence during aging to notice good things, positive things, aspects of the world that produce satisfaction and happiness — relative to younger (college-aged) adults who tend to notice things that need correction, negative things, and areas where they might invest energy to seek improvement. There are many changes with age and part of those changes is the focus of one’s cognition as it functions in relation to the time of one’s life.
For more than 10 years Dr. Carstensen has invested her time and research efforts as the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity — an interdisciplinary research center where she and other scientists use the emerging understanding of aging to the betterment of policy and efforts for programmatic social change. Needless to say, there is much more about Dr. Carstensen, her work on longevity, and the efforts of this Center to share with you. More to come in the book!
Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Carstensen:
Carstensen, L. L. (1988). The emerging field of behavioral gerontology. Behavior Therapy, 19(3), 259-281.
Carstensen, L. L. (1991). Selectivity theory: Social activity in life-span context. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 11(1), 195-217.
Carstensen, L. L. (1992). Social and emotional patterns in adulthood: support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Psychology and Aging, 7(3), 331-338.
Carstensen, L. L. (1995). Evidence for a life-span theory of socioemotional selectivity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(5), 151-156.
Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312(5782), 1913-1915.
Carstensen, L. L., & DeLiema, M. (2018). The positivity effect: A negativity bias in youth fades with age. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 19, 7-12.
Carstensen, L. L., & Fremouw, W. J. (1981). The demonstration of a behavioral intervention for late life paranoia. The Gerontologist, 21(3), 329-333.
Carstensen, L. L., Fung, H. H., & Charles, S. T. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity theory and the regulation of emotion in the second half of life. Motivation and Emotion, 27(2), 103-123.
Carstensen, L. L., Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1995). Emotional behavior in long-term marriage. Psychology and Aging, 10(1), 140-149.
Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54(3), 165-181.
Carstensen, L. L., & Mikels, J. A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and cognition: Aging and the positivity effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 117-121.
Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Mayr, U., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2000). Emotional experience in everyday life across the adult life span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(4), 644-655.
Carstensen, L. L., Rosenberger, M. E., Smith, K., & Modrek, S. (2015). Optimizing health in aging societies. Public Policy & Aging Report, 25(2), 38-42.
Carstensen, L. L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., Brooks, K. P., & Nesselroade, J. R. (2011). Emotional experience improves with age: evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, 26(1), 21-33.
Carstensen, L. L., & Turk-Charles, S. (1994). The salience of emotion across the adult life span. Psychology and Aging, 9(2), 259-264.
Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2010). Social and emotional aging. Annual review of Psychology, 61, 383-409.
Charles, S. T., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: the forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(2), 310-324.
English, T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2015). Does positivity operate when the stakes are high? Health status and decision making among older adults. Psychology and Aging, 30(2), 348-355.
Lang, F. R., & Carstensen, L. L. (1994). Close emotional relationships in late life: Further support for proactive aging in the social domain. Psychology and Aging, 9(2), 315-324.
Lang, F. R., & Carstensen, L. L. (2002). Time counts: Future time perspective, goals, and social relationships. Psychology and Aging, 17(1), 125-139.
Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(10), 496-502.
Scheibe, S., & Carstensen, L. L. (2010). Emotional aging: Recent findings and future trends. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 65(2), 135-144.
Sims, T., Hogan, C. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (2015). Selectivity as an emotion regulation strategy: Lessons from older adults. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 80-84.