Researchers from the University of Basel examined the self-reported emotions of thousands of 13-to-89-year-olds and discovered trends in how we evaluate ourselves over the lifespan. The overall forecast? The older, the happier. —Katherine Schreiber
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Shame's personal nature ("I am bad") differentiates it from guilt ("I did something bad"). Women are more prone to it, probably thanks to rigid (and sometimes self-esteem-crushing) cultural beauty standards, says researcher Ulrich Orth. Shame's post-adolescence decline can be chalked up to a general finding that "as we age, adaptive emotions increase and maladaptive emotions decrease," Orth says.
Basking in one's accomplishments appears to be linked to higher self-esteem and lower levels of depressive symptoms, Orth notes. What's more, pride steadily increases as we age, likely due to the successes we accumulate over the years. More-educated people net a steeper rise in pride, though scientists aren't sure if education itself boosts pride or prouder folks are more likely to pursue higher ed.
You might think that a weight on your shoulders would keep your spirits low, but that isn't the case. Feelings of guilt steadily increase at about the same pace as positive emotions (like life satisfaction and self-confidence). That's because guilt is adaptive: "It encourages us to learn from a behavior we feel we're in the wrong for," explains Jessica Tracy, who researches emotions at the University of British Columbia.
An overly inflated sense of self is linked with impaired relationships. Fortunately, as we get older, we take ourselves a little less seriously. It may be that, with time, we gain familiarity with our own limits and feel less of a need to sing our own praises. The most hubristic individuals also have the lowest self-esteem and happiness ratings, confirming the long assumed theory that deep down, narcissists harbor low self-worth.
Regardless of demographic and social status, the older we get, the more negativity diminishes, and the higher our self-esteem climbs, Orth found. With time, we hone qualities like self-control and altruism that contribute to overall happiness. The best is yet to come!
Clammy Hands, Warm Heart
There's an upside to feeling stressed: You'll form sunnier first impressions. While a control group showed better recall of new acquaintances' flaws, stressed-out folks remembered positive traits—likely because in tense times, we keep an eye out for potential allies, a German study notes. "Research usually proposes that a fundamental goal is the detection of people who might harm us," says study author Johanna Lass-Hennemann. "Our research shows that we actually search for helpers in stressful situations."—Karina Grudnikov