Attention and the Focused Life
THE PENGUIN PRESS
To William James, wisdom was "the art of knowing what to overlook," and many elders master this way of focusing. Lots of studies show that younger adults pay as much or more attention to negative information as to the positive sort. By middle age, however, their focus starts to shift, until in old age, they're likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.
The differences in what young and old people focus on and in their emotional well-being may have more to do with chronological changes in motivation rather than age per se. In her studies of "socioemotional selectivity," the Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen finds that when your lifespan seems open-ended, as it typically does in youth, you focus on the future and on acquiring information—expanding your horizons and seeking new experiences. When your lifespan seems limited, as it does among elders, your attention sensibly shifts to emotional satisfaction in the here-and-now and to worthwhile "sure things" rather than novelty. Interestingly, when young people are thrust into situations that highlight life's fragility, such as war or serious illness, they too tend to focus on fulfilling experiences in the present moment. As Carstensen puts it, 'Age does not entail the relentless pursuit of happiness, but rather the satisfaction of emotionally meaningful goals, which involves far more than simply 'feeling good."