Life always has its ups and downs.
According to the transactional model of stress proposed by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, much of the stress we encounter comes in the form of daily hassles, those small and frequent life events that can cause tension and disrupt well-being. Whether it involves spilling your coffee on yourself, being late for work, or coping with an unexpected setback, daily hassles can seem minor on their own. Over time however, the cumulative stress caused by dealing with too many of these daily hassles can drain your inner resources and trigger the kind of health problems associated with catastrophic stress in your life.
On the other hand, there are also the uplifts that we experience. These are the positive life events that can help reinforce a sense of well-being. When something good happens to you, seemingly out of the blue, it can help restore your capacity for dealing with stress. While research into the effect of uplifts on health is not as extensive as what has been learned about daily hassles, uplifts have been linked to medical benefiits such as improved mood, serum cortisol levels and lower levels of inflammation.
But what about as we grow older? As our bodies change with time, the impact that hassles and uplifts can have on our capacity for handling stress, and on health in general, changes as well. While there has been relatively little previous research looking at hassles, uplifts, and aging, at least one study found no difference in the impact of daily hassles on middle-aged adults though both hassles and uplifts changed with time. Studies using daily diaries with people of different ages reporting on hassles and uplifts suggest that older adults are less likely to be affected by daily hassles than their younger counterparts though the results tend to be mixed.
Part of the difficulty involves how hassles and uplifts are measured, whether in terms of how often the hassles occur or how well people cope with them. Overall, younger adults (mean age of 20) tend to report more hassles than older adults (mean age of 80). Daily stressors, especially the kind that involve interpersonal tension, tend to be more easily handled by adults with a lifetime of experience at dealing with similar situations. Then again, older adults are better able to avoid the kind of situations that can lead to these kinds of daily hassles occurring. Many of the daily hassles we deal with when younger, such as work and child-care hassles, are less likely to affect older adults who are more settled in their lives.
As for uplifts however, there are fewer research studies looking at how older people are affected by the positive things happening in their lives. As people grow older, they are less likely to experience uplifts (much as they are less likely to experience daily hassles). This can be due to older people having more settled lives which reduce the ups and downs that occur when they are younger. While avoiding daily hassles can prevent stress-related problems, experiencing fewer uplifts can have health consequences as well. Limiting exposure to positive uplifts also means fewer chances to experience the kind of positive emotion that can provide health benefits such as reduced blood pressure, release of stress-reducing hormones, and general buildup of the body's internal resources.
To understand the importance of hassles and uplifts in controlling stress and anxiety, it helps to understand how the body regulates emotion. According to a 2006 research study, there are two main approaches to understanding how adults deal with the emotion they encounter in their lives. One of these approaches is based on what Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell first referred to as the "hedonic treadmill" focuses on human adults returning to a relatively stable emotional level after experiencing a major positive or negative life change. Due to hedonic adaptation, humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness in their lives (equivalent in some ways to a thermostat that adjusts temperature). Since emotional balance is typically stable over time, most major life events will only cause temporary disruptions.
Later versions of the hedonic treadmill concept acknowledge the existence of "set-points" that can be altered by traumatic events or extremely positive life changes. Still, adults tend to keep a certain emotional balance throughout their lives regardless of the triumphs or tragedies they may encounter. For the most part, people who were happy before a trauma occurs tend to become happy again over time while unhappy people tend to "shrug off" whatever positive news they receive.
But age also brings a change in perspective, especially when people believe that they are running out of time to live satisfying lives. According to the socioemotional selectivity theory proposed by Laura Carstensen, older people become more "selective" about the meaningful activities and goals they feel they need to achieve (hence the popularity of "bucket lists").
Feeling that "life is too short", many older people will be more willing to let go of grievances and attempt to make their remaining time more positive. Overall, this seems more true of "young-old" adults (younger than 85) who don't have the physical and mental problems of "old-old" adults (85 and older). As health declines, negative emotions tend to become more common. Stilll, despite their growing health problems, older adults seem far better at handling most forms of stress better than younger people.
In a study recently published in Psychology and Aging, a team of researchers at Oregon State University and the Veterans' Administration Boston Healthcare System used the VA Normative Aging Study to test how adults handle stress as they grow older First established in 1963, the Normative Aging Study is the most comprehensive longitudinal study of its kind with over six thousand participants receiving medical examinations every three years and providing information relating to psychological, lifestyle, and stress factors.
Carolyn Aldwin and her co-researchers focused their study on 1,389 male participants who completed a questionnaire relating to hassles and uplifts (ranging in age from 48 to 101). The study results showed a steady decrease in the impact that hassles had on the participants in the study, but only for "young-old" people. Beginning at the age of 67 approximately, daily hassles increase streadily. For uplifts, the impact increased steadily until the age of 80 and leveled off afterward. The results seem to support theories showing the stability of uplifts over time and the rise in negative emotions in "old-old" adults. There also seems to be a difference in terms of how hassles and uplifts affect older people. Though the hassles tend to occur less often, they can have a greater impact when they do.
Still, the emotional benefits of uplifts and the impact of hassles seem to converge in extreme old age for many people. According to the researchers, it may be tht "experience tempers the joy and excitement seen earlier in life when individual experiences may be new. For example, contrast the difference in excitement between a child’s trip to a theme park, an adolescent’s first trip to Europe, and the grandparent’s experience of similar events in late life."
Overall, our ability to regulate emotion increases up to "young-old" age but begins to decrease slowly afterward. This is likely due to the effect of health and social factors including development of severe medical problems and changes in the emotional support as friends and family grow older as well.
So, what does this mean in terms of how we deal with hassles and uplifts over the years? With age comes greater experience at dealing with the regular hassles that seem so overwhelming when we were younger. As our lives become more settled and new problems emerge due to getting older, handling these new hassles becomes more of a challenge. Though uplifts can provide the kind of emotional boost that can make coping with hassles easier, growing older can often mean fewer opportunities for experiencing uplifts over time.
So cherish uplifts as they happen and learn to take hassles in stride. This could be the key to a healthy old age.