Socioemotional selectivity theory (SST) is grounded in the uniquely human ability to monitor time (Carstensen, 1993, 2006; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). According to SST, a core constellation of goals operates throughout adulthood, including basic goals associated with attachment and control as well as goals associated with instrumental needs and emotional gratification. The key postulate of SST is that the relative importance of goals within this constellation changes as a function of future time horizons. Because chronological age is inversely associated with actual and perceived time left in life, systematic age differences emerge in preferred goals. Importantly, according to SST, age differences in goal hierarchies reflect perceived future time more than time since birth (viz., chronological age). When the future is perceived as long and nebulous, as it typically is in youth, future-oriented goals related to gathering information and expanding horizons are prioritized over emotional gratification. When time horizons are constrained, present-oriented goals related to emotional satisfaction and meaning are prioritized over goals associated with long-term rewards.
All told, the body of research about social and emotional aging suggests that, relative to younger people, older people enjoy relatively stable and positive emotional experience in daily life, focus on positive more than negative information, and prioritize meaningful activities over activities related to individual achievement and exploration. Together, these qualities represent a significant source of social capital.