I am a huge Laura Carstensen fan.
When I read her stuff my first thought is always, “That is so cool, wish I’d thought of that.”
Last month’s PositiveAging Newsletter carries a nice summary of some of her recent work.
Emotional aging: Recent findings and future trends by Susanne Scheibe and Laura L. Carstensen. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2010, 65B, 135-144.
Seasoned researcher Laura Carstensen has long been identified with research on emotion and aging. In this review, she and her colleague Susanne Scheibe synthesize the research on emotional processing and regulation, that is, how people deal with experiences that have a high emotional significance. Stereotypically, older people are often thought to be sad, depressed and lonely. However, this assumption is deeply flawed. Despite challenges from cognitive, physical and social sources, most older people for most of their remaining years, are well-adjusted and emotionally well-balanced. Older people tend to be happier and more emotionally stable than their younger counterparts.
Research suggests that on average, older people tend to pay more attention to positive news and less to negative information. This finding has been found for attention, memory and decision-making tasks. The exception to this positivity bias is when older people are exposed to an immediately threatening situation; then the bias is not found. In terms of emotional regulation, older people score higher than young adults on three of four aspects of the emotional intelligence test. These factors are facilitating, understanding, and managing emotions.
Much of the elder advantage lies in the manner in which they select their environments and prepare for emotionally intense experiences before they occur. Possibly this imaginative rehearsal is a reason why older people are less responsive to many emotionally arousing events than younger people. (They are not less affected, for example, when confronted with the loss of a loved one. Here, older people express more sadness and are as physiologically aroused as younger people). Older people tend to prefer social situations with familiar others, and to spend less time with strangers, avoid confrontations and situations that are hostile, and they seem to take more complex views of troubling situations than younger people. This helps them to reduce conflicting emotions. One might say they are more likely see the world through rose-colored glasses, which may impair their ability to detect deception and fraud.
One possible explanation for this positivity is that because of their long experience at emotional regulation, older people become increasingly skilled at dealing with intense situations. They may also become increasingly motivated to use these skills as they sense that “time is running out.” Given that the future trajectory is shorter, it becomes more important to enjoy every day, and not suffer the day for some longer term goal, as younger people often do when they are working toward some future reward, such as an advanced degree. Only when confronted with immanent death does this upbeat attitude tend to decline.
Overall, the emotional life of older people has much to recommend it, and it is something that younger people might envy and look forward to as they age.