As we mark the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence continues to emerge regarding COVID’s impact on the entire US population. The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented amount of stress, especially on older adults who faced a heightened risk of contracting the virus. Although most, if not all, of the population was affected in some way, COVID’s impact may not have been homogeneous. A recent study found age to be a factor for certain advantages in emotional experience when dealing with pandemic-induced stress. In the study, Stanford University researchers surveyed 945 Americans across the country age 18 through 76 to measure the frequency and intensity of the range of positive and negative emotions, thereby shedding light on theoretical questions about age differences in emotional experience in times of stress.
Early evidence already suggested that the daily emotional experience of older adults is more positive than that of younger people, and that life satisfaction tends to increase from mid- to late life. The Stanford study sought to better understand these findings within the pandemic’s unique context. Aside from emotional well-being, people’s subjective perceptions of time were measured, as well as perceived risk, effect on employment, subjective health, and personality.
The study extended previous research about age and emotion. Interestingly, age remained a significant predictor of emotions, even when adding health, race, living alone, personality traits, and employment status into the model. Evidence showed older adults having better emotional wellness levels compared to younger adults, even in the face of the pandemic. Some thought was given to the idea that maybe older adults just avoided COVID-19 stressors and thus had lower perceived levels of risk. However, findings revealed that the relative age advantage cannot be explained by risk denial; older participants had greater perceived risk than younger participants, and even monitored COVID-19 news more closely than younger adults, thereby suggesting more exposure to stress. This is promising evidence that older adults can hone emotional resilience, even in the face of persistent and dire threats to well-being.
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Carstensen LL, Shavit YZ, and Barnes JT. Age Advantages in Emotional Experience Persist Even Under Threat From the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Science (2020); 31(11): 1374-1385.