Emotional Fitness in Aging: Older is Happier

Older adults accentuate the positive.

What the Research Shows

Belying the stereotype of cranky old people, older adults actually appear to enjoy pleasant emotions and recall more positive images than do younger adults. Ongoing psychological research is painting a new and reassuring picture about how older adults feel. The findings attest to a healthy degree of emotional fitness.

In 2001, Susan Turk Charles, PhD, Chandra Reynolds, PhD, and Margaret Gatz, PhD, reported that the tendency exhibited by most people to have a positive outlook extends into old age. A longitudinal study of 2,704 people in four generations of families, which ran from 1971 to 1994, asked participants "positive affect" (emotion or mood) questions, such as, "During the past few weeks, did you ever feel particularly excited or interested in something?" They also asked "negative affect" questions, such as, "During the past few weeks, did you feel so restless that you couldn't sit long in a chair?"

The researchers found that for all generations, negative affect decreased with age. In other words, as people got older, they got less negative. Positive affect stayed fairly stable across time, with a small decrease for the oldest people in the study. However, older participants who were more outgoing were less likely to show a drop in positive affect.

In 2003, Dr. Charles, with Mara Mather, PhD, and Laura Carstensen, PhD, reported on additional research showing that older adults recall relatively more positive and fewer negative images than younger adults. Two studies examined age differences in memory for positive, negative and neutral images of people, animals, nature scenes and inanimate objects. For example, among the "people" pictures, a positive image showed a man and a young boy at the beach watching seagulls overhead; a negative image showed a couple looking sorrowful as they stand in a cemetery and stare down at a tombstone; and a neutral image showed scuba divers checking their gear by the side of a dock.

In both experiments, the psychologists showed participants the images and then tested recall (how many they remembered) and recognition memory (whether they accurately picked what they saw from a larger group of images). Older adults (ages 65-80) recalled fewer negative images relative to positive and neutral images. In that older group, recognition memory also decreased for negative pictures. As a result, the younger adults (ages 18-29 and 41-53) remembered the negative pictures better. What's more, although both younger and older adults spent more time viewing negative images, only the younger group recalled and recognized them better.

What the Research Means

These psychological studies document the tendency of older people to regulate their emotions more effectively than younger people, by maintaining positive feelings and lowering negative feelings. Thus, aging does not automatically bring a bad outlook.

The research supports the "socioemotional selectivity" theory that, as people get older and become more aware of more limited time left in life, they direct their attention to more positive thoughts, activities and memories. In their report, the authors wrote that, "With age, people place increasingly more value on emotionally meaningful goals and thus invest more cognitive and behavioral resources in obtaining them."

Physiology may aid the process. Dr. Mather and additional colleagues have done preliminary brain research suggesting that in older adults, the "amygdala," an almond-shaped part of the temporal lobe that's associated with emotion, is activated equally to positive and negative images, whereas in younger adults, it is activated more to negative images. This suggests that older adults encode less information about negative images, which in turn would diminish recall.

Meanwhile, psychologist Quinn Kennedy, PhD, with Drs. Mather and Carstensen, conducted a longitudinal study in which they asked older and younger adults to recall their physical, mental, and emotional well-being from a prior point in time. Older people recalled their past health - 14 years prior -- as being more positive than did younger people, even though the amount of time that had passed was held constant. When older and younger adults were asked to recall their past, the older but not younger adults reported that their mood improved. Importantly, the findings were not attributed to age-related declines in memory.

W. Richard Walker, PhD, and colleagues cite additional findings from cross-sectional studies that pleasant emotions fade more slowly from memory than unpleasant emotions - perhaps because we try harder to minimize the negative impact of life events. Dr. Walker view this kind of emotional fade-out as a healthy way of coping. Given older peoples' storehouse of memories, it may be especially helpful. But the longitudinal studies by Dr. Charles and her colleagues were able to illuminate the actual changes as people grow older. Longitudinal studies are essential for psychologists to understand the true dynamics of aging.

How We Use the Research

Clearly, older people (generally age 65 and up) are not the crotchety sourpusses that popular images and mass media often make them out to be. Rather, they are continuing a lifelong human tendency to look on the bright side and minimize the impact of negative events. Knowing that older people are generally positive may help younger people look forward to that time in life, rather than dread it. Older people can feel good about being able to keep themselves emotionally healthy, which in turn aids immunity and other aspects of physical health, as shown in a study by Lynanne McGuire, PhD, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and Ronald Glaser, PhD. In addition, doctors can be aware that because older people tend to be more positive, expressions of negativity are less likely to be a sign of normal aging and more likely to be, perhaps, a sign of depression.

Cited Research

Charles, S. T., Reynolds, C. A. & Gatz, M. (2001). Age-Related Differences and Change in Positive and Negative Affect Over 23 Years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1).

Kennedy, Q., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2004). The Role of Motivation in the Age-Related Positivity Effect in Autobiographical Memory. Psychological Science, 15(3).

McGuire, L., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (2002). Depressive Symptoms and Lymphocyte Proliferation in Older Adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(1).

Charles, S. T., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132(2).

Walker, W. R., Skowronski, J. J., & Thompson, C. P. (2003). Life is Pleasant - and Memory Helps to Keep It That Way!" Review of General Psychology, 7(2).

American Psychological Association, November 28, 2005