Having complex emotional experiences is important for maintaining well-being, as is feeling younger than one actually is. In two studies, researchers investigated how these concepts interact.
In the first study, the researchers recruited 188 participants age 30 to 100. As a measure of subjective age, participants were asked how old they felt most of the time. They also responded to demographic questions such as age, gender, education, and self-rated health. Then, at the end of each day for two weeks, participants rated the extent they experienced six positive and six negative emotions. Greater emotional complexity was characterized as the ability to experience both positive and negative emotions, whereas low complexity would be experiencing only positive or only negative emotions.
Results indicated that participants who reported feeling older tended to have lower levels of emotional complexity. Contrary to expectations, however, older and younger adults tended to experience similar levels of emotional complexity.
Procedures for the second study were identical to study one, except that subjective age was measured every day for the two-week period instead of just once at the beginning of the study. Similar to findings in study one, on days that participants felt older, they tended to report lower emotional complexity. Interestingly, subjective age tended to fluctuate from day to day so that on some days participants reported feeling older, but on other days they reported feeling younger.
Where older and younger adults differed, however, was in the extent that subjective age influences emotional complexity. Younger adults tended to report similar levels of emotional complexity regardless of how old they felt on a given day, but older adults tended to experience less emotional complexity on days that they felt older.
These results support the idea that subjective age plays an important role in well-being for older adults. Feeling older may be more stressful for older adults, causing them to endorse more negative views of aging and have less complex emotional experiences. Interventions to enhance both emotional complexity and positive views of aging may help protect older adults from the negative effects of fluctuations in subjective age.