A lot of things are lost with age—our youth, cognitive processing speed, the hair on our heads. But for all these losses, it appears that older adults don’t lose—and may actually gain—the ability to regulate their emotions better than ever. Indeed, a growing body of published work indicates that the human ability to maintain emotional temperance grows with age.
Regardless of how much my own neurotic parents fly in the face of these findings, it appears that most older adults recover at a quickened pace from negative emotional states when compared to their younger selves. With that said, what underlying process explains these gains in emotional regulation in later life—especially given declines in so many other parts of the human experience that come with age?
Recent research points to greater motivation than younger adults to selectively attend to positive stimuli, and to spend time and cognitive energy thinking about “happy thoughts” and less time ruminating on less-than-pleasant aspects of existence.
A recent study went on to coin the term positivity effect to describe this phenomenon in aging adults. The authors defined this as “a motivated shift from a preference for negative information in young adults to a preference for positive information at older ages.”
Researchers performed a series of task tests with older adults (age 66 to 81) and younger adults (age 19 to 25). Participants were asked to concentrate on a series of central target words or images while ignoring the distraction of other “flanking” items, and then to categorize each central target word or image as they also ignored distractions. The speed of their responses, as well as MRI brain scans, were reviewed. The researchers found that the younger participants were more distracted, showing slower reaction times, while the older participants showed a significant difference in the types of testing: their performance on emotion-based target words and images showed they were not distracted—they maintained significant focus in this area.
These findings bolster a body of previous work suggesting that emotional attentiveness and stability mature and mellow with age. Findings like these provide additional merit to the notion that some things really do get better with age; and also provides a small grain of hope that my parent may eventually start to mellow with another decade or so of life under their belts—maybe.
Samanez-Larkin GR, Robertson ER, Mikels JA, et al. Selective attention to emotion in the aging brain. Motivation Science (2014); 1: 49–63.