The Positive Emotional Effects of Aging

As we age, the way we deal with and experience our emotions change, in a mostly a positive way, according to many recently published studies at the University of California and USC. Researchers found that we experience less and less negative emotions such as loneliness, depression, anger, and boredom up to the age of 65, and then the rate of decrease slows up to the age of 80. Corollary to this finding is another study by University of California at Berkley, highlighting that older adults have a harder time controlling their emotions when viewing heartbreaking or disgusting images, they are far better than young people at seeing the positive side of stressful situations. They were also better at empathizing with the less fortunate.

The first study, led by Susan Tuck Charles, was compiled from research analysis of 23 years of data that was collected on four generations of Americans. In total, 2,804 people participated in the study, completing psychological tests and rating scales at five different points in the study. In order to determine that the results are not due to events that have occurred over the past 23 years, also known as a cohort effect, the researchers also studied people of different ages at each point in the study.

In the study they watched closely the frequency and intensity of positive and negative emotions, predicting they would interact independently of each other. This proved to be almost entirely true. In all, evidence from the study suggests that the socioemotional selectivity theory is mostly correct. This states that emotions become more noticeable for older adults, allowing them to prioritize activities, events, and social interactions, along emotional lines much better than younger adults. In essence, they are effectively using the emotional coping skills they’ve constructed over a lifetime, allowing them to bypass negative emotions much more effectively, allowing them to see and experience more positive emotion and interaction. The 23 years of data clearly show the elderly do not experience as much negative emotion as younger people. Charles’s study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the Berkley study, the researchers observed the responses of a group of 144 healthy adults in their 20’s, 40’s, and 60’s as they viewed neutral, sad, and disgusting movie clips. They closely observed the subject’s ability to use techniques called “detached appraisal," "positive reappraisal" and "behavior suppression” to deal with the clips. The younger groups were better at utilizing the coping mechanism of “detached appraisal,” removing themselves from feeling much negative emotion. The older group was the best at taking the negative scenes to use “positive reappraisal,” a coping mechanism that draws on a person’s life experience and lessons learned.

 


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