The premise of the proposed research is that older citizens possess considerable untapped potential related to their emotional balance and preferences for meaningful activity. Empirical evidence suggests that opportunities for meaningful work (paid or unpaid) may be especially motivating for older people and that older people may be especially well-suited for work that draws on social and emotional skills. Moreover, engagement in meaningful work is associated with increases in older adults' relatively low levels of physical activity. Thus, motivating activity by tapping preferences for meaningful engagement has the potential to improve the health and well-being of older people as well as the broader public that is served. The research is guided by socio-emotional selectivity theory, which maintains that changing time horizons result in systematic age differences in motivation and emotion. Specifically, when time horizons are expansive, people are motivated to explore and learn. When time horizons are constrained, people are motivated to prioritize emotionally meaningful experience. Over the past two decades socio-emotional selectivity theory has been extensively tested and validated in basic empirical studies; there is now a great opportunity to apply the theory to everyday domains outside of the laboratory. We propose a series of studies that explore postulates and test hypotheses about the ways that positive changes in emotional experience and the prioritization of emotional goals can enhance behavioral practices and performance in three areas: workplace productivity, physical activity, and volunteer activities. Three broad aims are pursued.
Aim I tests hypotheses about (a) age differences in work preferences and the role of perceived time horizons therein, (b) comparisons of age differences in behavioral and emotional experience during work, and (c) exploratory research using company-level data to reveal contributions of older workers that may be overlooked in current managerial practices.
Aim II tests hypotheses that older people prefer physical activities framed in terms of emotional meaning more so than activities specified as exercise, and that emotionally meaningful incentives are most effective in increasing walking in older people.
Aim III applies the same theoretical approach to optimize the recruitment and retention of older volunteers nearing retirement age. By extending the research program in these innovative and applied directions, we extend the theory in novel ways that can help to refine the conceptual basis of the research as well as identify potential ways to improve public health. The research proposed in this renewal application is poised to have high impact because our research partners in private and government organizations have the ability to implement empirically-validated approaches on a large scale. Partners include the civic leadership of Santa Clara County, the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Mercer, Fidelity, and Target Corporation, each of which has the capacity to improve the health and well-being of the populations they serve.

Public Health Relevance

Aging societies pose challenges, yet they also offer new opportunities. Substantial good can come from large numbers of mature and emotionally stable citizens to the extent that the social and human capital represented in them is tapped. The proposed research applies findings about adulthood changes in motivation and emotion and applies them to important life domains. Specifically, the research tests the effectiveness of theoretically-informed efforts to enhance the productivity of older workers, increase physical activity and enlist and retain older volunteers to improve community welfare.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
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Onken, Lisa
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Stanford University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Notthoff, Nanna; Carstensen, Laura L (2017) Promoting walking in older adults: Perceived neighborhood walkability influences the effectiveness of motivational messages. J Health Psychol 22:834-843
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English, Tammy; Carstensen, Laura L (2015) Does positivity operate when the stakes are high? Health status and decision making among older adults. Psychol Aging 30:348-55
Sims, Tamara; Hogan, Candice; Carstensen, Laura (2015) Selectivity as an Emotion Regulation Strategy: Lessons from Older Adults. Curr Opin Psychol 3:80-84
Carstensen, Laura L (2015) The new age of much older age. Time 185:68-70
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Hershfield, Hal E; Scheibe, Susanne; Sims, Tamara L et al. (2013) When Feeling Bad Can Be Good: Mixed Emotions Benefit Physical Health Across Adulthood. Soc Psychol Personal Sci 4:54-61

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