From the March, 2005 Cyberspace News

Mellowing As You Grow Older

People tend to experience fewer negative emotions such as loneliness, depression, anger, and boredom as we age. This was the finding of psychologists at the University of California and U.S.C. This decrease is strongest up until the age of 65. Negative emotions decrease more slowly after that period up to age 80.

The researchers completed their analysis of 23 years of data collected on four generations of Americans and 2,804 people participated in the study. The researchers studied the frequency and intensity of both positive and negative emotions. The results support the idea that positive and negative emotions are independent (as opposed to being connected and possibly, dependent on one another). In other words, just because the frequency and intensity of negative emotions decrease, that does not guarantee that the that frequency and intensity of positive emotions will increase. Positive emotions apparently remained stable through mid-life, decreasing only slightly in older adults.

So what is it about being older that causes a decrease in negative emotions while positive emotions remained stable? Well, according to the socioemotional selectivity theory, emotions become more important for older adults and older people tend to prioritize their activities (including social ones) among emotional lines more than younger adults do. In doing this, they’re using the emotional coping skills learned over their lifespan where potentially negative interactions are avoided and positive ones are maintained. Avoiding negative situations, including social ones, and constructing environments that promote well-being might be one way older adults are better able to control their emotions.

In other words, as we grow older, we develop more experience in dealing with emotional situations and we tend to be less reactive emotionally than when we’re young. Thus we’re more laid-back than we were when we were young “hotheads” and when we were in less control of emotions. By the time we arrive at our older years, we’ve spent a good portion of our lives constructing environments (like home, family, and social events) that support us emotionally. Hopefully we’re also realizing how lucky we are to have such positive environments.

One can also speculate that in our later years we’ve just reached a point where we don’t feel we have the time for negative interactions so we almost instinctively gravitate toward the positive.

In any case, it’s a rare bit of good news about aging!

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