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Aging Mellows Emotions

Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.

Does it seem like little things don't bother you as much as you grow older?

Several years ago psychologists at the University of California and U.S.C. confirmed that we seem to experience less negative emotions such as loneliness, depression, anger, and boredom as we age. This decrease of negative emotions is strong up until age 65, and the decrease slows (but continues) until about age 80.

The researchers completed their analysis of 23 years of data collected on four generations of Americans in 2001. 2,804 people participated in the study, completing psychological tests and rating scales at five different points in heir lives.  This longitudinal study is one of the best ways to explore issues like this.  The researchers also studied people of different ages at each point in the study in order to determine that the results are not due to events that have occurred over the past 23 years (known as a 'cohort' effect).

Susan Tuck Charles and her colleagues studied the frequency and intensity of both positive and negative emotions, assuming that the two might show very different patterns. In other words - just because the frequency and intensity of negative emotions decrease, that does not necessarily mean that the frequency and intensity of positive emotions will increase. The study's results support that notion that positive and negative emotions are indeed independent. Positive emotions stayed stable through mid-life, only decreasing slightly in older adults.

The authors summarize their results and attempt to explain them:

"In sum, the findings suggest that whereas positive affect remains fairly stable across time, negative affect decreases across the adult life span. What is it about aging that causes decreases in negative affect while positive affect remains relatively stable?"

"According to socioemotional selectivity theory, emotions become more salient for older adults, and older adults prioritize activities, including social interactions, along emotional lines to a greater extent than younger adults. In doing so, they are using emotional coping skills acquired over their life span, whereby potentially negative interactions are avoided and positive ones are maintained. This avoidance of negative affect may be one reason why older adults report that they are better able to control their emotions, because they are constructing environments that promote well-being. In addition, lower physiological arousal in response to emotional events may have a beneficial effect for the experience and control of negative affect across the life span, such that lower levels of physiological arousal result in less arousal (i.e., lower emotional surgency) that needs to be modulated and controlled. (Charles, et.al, 2001)"

In other words - as we grow older we develop more experience dealing with emotional events, and we become less emotionally reactive than when we are younger. It is also true that we have spent much of our lives constructing environments (such as home and family) that support us emotionally. All of these factors lilkely play a role in the decrease in negative emotions as we age.

Reference: Charles, Susan Tuck; Reynolds, Chandra A & Gatz, Margaret. Age-Related Differences and Change in Positive and Negative Affect Over 23 Years. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 2001; 80: 136-151