When thinking back on their life, older adults typically remember their fondest memories as occurring in young adulthood. But new research, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has found that young adults in a variety of cultures tend to experience more distress and worse psychological well-being compared to their older counterparts.
The findings add to a body of literature indicating that people experience a “reminiscence bump” as they grow older.
“I am interested in how people from different cultures remember their own lives and how these memories are related to mental health,” said Alejandra Zaragoza Scherman (@antiquisima) of Aarhus University, the corresponding author of the new study.
“Research has shown that our memory is often faulty and replete of biases. For example, middle-aged and older people often remember young adulthood as a positive period, despite the fact that young people usually report high levels of distress, compared to middle-aged and older people. I found this quite intriguing, but very little cross-cultural research has been done in this area. Investigating age differences on depression, centrality of event, PTSD, and life satisfaction across cultures became the next step in my research program.”
For their study, Zaragoza Scherman and her colleagues surveyed 553 young adults (between 18 and 30 years old) and 390 middle-aged adults (between 45 and 64 years old) from Mexico, Greenland, China and Denmark. The surveys included assessments of depression, PTSD, important life events, and life satisfaction.
The researchers uncovered a similar pattern of results across all four cultures. Young adult participants reported lower levels of life satisfaction compared to middle-aged participants, and higher levels of depression and PTSD symptoms.
“In general, young adults reported higher distress and lower levels of life satisfaction, compared to middle-aged adults. This is good news for the middle-aged adults. There seem to be some benefits to aging. On the other hand, it is bad news for the young adults. Efforts need to be made to better understand how to support young people in achieving mental health,” Zaragoza Scherman told PsyPost.
The researchers also found that positive memories were less central to the identity and life stories of young adults compared to middle-aged participants.
So why do older people have such fond memories of young adulthood? Cultural life script theory may provide one explanation for this phenomenon, Zaragoza Scherman explained.
“One of the most robust findings in the field of autobiographical memory is that of the reminiscence bump. The reminiscence bump shows that when individuals over 40 years of age are asked to remember important life events from their life, they disproportionately recall positive events from their adolescence and early adulthood. This lifetime period is favored in memory,” she told PsyPost.
“The cultural life script theory was proposed to explain the reminiscence bump. The cultural life script is commonly shared cultural expectations about the timing and the order of important transitional life events. The theory posits that the life script serves like a template to help people remember their lives.”
Zaragoza Scherman and her colleagues found evidence for the theory in another cross-cultural study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in 2017.
“The cultural life script favors adolescence and young adulthood, creating a positivity bias towards this lifetime period. This might help explain why young adulthood is remembered positively despite the fact that young people report more psychological distress,” Zaragoza Scherman said.
The main limitation of the new research is that it only collected cross-sectional data.
“We still need to understand how memories of important life events evolve throughout the lifespan and how they affect psychological well-being in people from different cultures. Therefore, we need longitudinal research. In addition, we need to better understand the psychological mechanisms behind the age differences we observed,” Zaragoza Scherman said.
The study, “Younger adults report more distress and less well‐being: A cross‐cultural study of event centrality, depression, post‐traumatic stress disorder and life satisfaction“, was authored by Alejandra Zaragoza Scherman, Sinué Salgado, Zhifang Shao, and Dorthe Berntsen.