The holidays are upon us once again. For some of us, this is a chance to reunite with loved ones we don’t see often enough. For others, it’s a dreaded visit that we could have done without. If you are in this latter category, the strategies outlined in this article may help make this time of year a little more bearable. But really, the strategies can benefit everyone.
Today’s lesson is brought to us by: older adults. Older adults: a group stereotypically associated with negative, rather than positive, emotions (Does the word “grumpy” come to mind?). According to research, though, this stereotype doesn’t accurately describe most older adults (at least those younger than 75-80 years of age; after this, it gets complicated). In fact, the opposite is true. Older adults are actually experts in emotion regulation (i.e., controlling their emotions via attention and behavior) and we can learn from their efforts to minimize negative emotion.
Older adults have had a lifetime of experience with both pleasant and unpleasant social interactions and emotions.1
Because their time perspective is different than younger adults (i.e., they perceive less time left in their lives), their priorities are different. Older adults, and anyone with a shortened time perspective, value positive affect and feeling good more than those with a lengthy time perspective.2,3
Because of their lengthy time perspective, younger adults value information and are more intent on gaining knowledge and resources.
Older adults actively rearrange their lives to maximize positive emotions through social interactions with preferred partners. As a result, they experience less negative affect than other age groups, even after controlling for things like total amount of daily stressors.
Older adults combat negative emotions using 4 lines of defense:
1. Avoid situations that are associated with negative emotional experiences. Okay, so this probably won’t work for the obligatory holiday meal, but in general it’s a good strategy. Avoid negative emotions by avoiding the circumstances or events you know trigger them.
2. Modify the negative situation to make it less negative.
One of the ways we can facilitate negative emotions is by provoking or otherwise arguing with our social partners. In these types of situations, older adults are much more likely than younger adults to let the opportunity to argue pass. By not doing anything, older adults are avoiding the experience of negative emotions. Younger adults, in comparison, are more likely to be confrontational and intervene, either to try to change the other person’s mind or to stand their ground.4
3. Focus on the positive and away from the negative. Even when we are presented with a unavoidable negative situation, we can still control our attentional focus. Older adults are more likely than younger adults to focus on the positive or neutral aspects of a situation and downplay the more negative aspects.
In a clever experiment staged by Charles and Carstensen (2008), participants listened to two people talking negatively about another person. Participants were asked to imagine they were the target of the conversation. When asked about their thoughts and feelings, younger adults were much more concerned and curious about the content of what the people were saying (consistent with the information-seeking theme) and wanted to know more about why they were making such negative comments. They also had more negative comments about these individuals. Older adults, on the other hand, did not care as much about what was being said and why. They distanced themselves from the negative comments and showed less emotionality in their responses. A typical response was, “You can’t please all the people all the time.”5
4. Think positively (or less negatively).
In addition to focusing on the positive, you can reinterpret the negative situation as a more positive or neutral one. Older married couples use this strategy often, whether they are aware of it or not. In one experiment, couples of all ages were asked to discuss difficult topics with one another. Even though they discussed a heated subject matter, older couples were able to de-escalate conflict using positive interpretations. Older couples are primarily interested in preserving goodwill with their partner and as a result, they often benevolently interpret their partner’s statements and actions. This leads to less conflict and lower levels of anger and other negative emotions compared to younger couples.6
Even though older adults are better at emotion regulation, we can all do things to minimize negative affect. Because, really, who wouldn’t like to enjoy more positive emotions during the holidays?
1 Charles, S. T. (2010). Strength and vulnerability integration : A model of emotional well-being across adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1068-1091. doi:10.1037/a0021232
2 Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312, 1913–1915. doi:10.1126/science.1127488
3 Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165–181. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.3.165
4 Charles, S. T., Piazza, J. R., Luong, G., & Almeida, D. M. (2009). Now you see it, now you don’t: Age differences in affective reactivity to social tensions. Psychology and Aging, 24, 645–653. doi:10.1037/a0016673
5 Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2008). Unpleasant situations elicit different emotional responses in younger and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 23, 495–504. doi:10.1037/a0013284
6 Smith, T. W., Berg, C. A., Florsheim, P., Uchino, B. N., Pearce, G., Hawkins, M., . . . Olsen-Cerny, C. (2009). Conflict and collaboration in middle-aged and older couples: Age differences in agency and communion during marital interaction. Psychology and Aging, 24, 259 –273. doi:10.1037/a0015609