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Emotion Regulation

What to Do When You're on an Emotional Rollercoaster

Holding onto optimism, and learning from older adults.

Key points

  • Riding an emotional rollercoaster is not fun, especially if it causes adverse reactions to life’s stresses.
  • New research shows what you can learn from how older adults manage their stressful experiences.
  • By tracking your daily emotions, you can manage even the stressful events that can otherwise take you down.

When you think of your day-to-day emotions, how much on an even keel do they seem to be?

Are you able to let a bad experience keep from affecting your mood, or does something going wrong drag your emotions down with it?

Perhaps you're typing away on your laptop, and all of a sudden, one of the keys stops working properly. You've got too much to do, and having to pause to figure out what's wrong is going to cost you precious minutes if not hours. Although you felt pretty happy and confident ten minutes ago, the glow vanished from your mood, and you feel utterly dejected and hopeless. Why do these things have to happen at the worst possible time?

Mood swings like this can take their toll on a day-to-day basis. Short of having a diagnosable mood disorder, it's very easy to fall into the trap of the emotional rollercoaster that such little incidents can provoke. Of course, it's nice when the rollercoaster is on the way up, and you're full of joy and optimism. However, life eventually is likely to get in the way and cause some of that happiness to take a tumble.

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Emotion Globalizing and Life Satisfaction

You may be familiar with research on life satisfaction, often publicized in the media when the yearly Happiness Reports come out with the scores for different countries. But did you realize these reports are based on very simple (some may say simplistic) measures? The only question people are asked is to rate their satisfaction with life on a 0 or 1 to 10 scale. There are no in-depth interviews, not even multi-factor scales going into detail on specific aspects of life—just a single number.

If you try to do this for yourself right now, do you feel that the number you arrive at is based on a momentary estimate, or does it capture your life in general? According to Washington University in St. Louis psychologist Emily Willroth and colleagues (2020), it's important to take into account the way that people's life satisfaction varies over time, at least in some individuals. People who engage in "emotion globalizing" allow their current mood to drift on into their life satisfaction estimates.

Apart from creating a lot of noise in the world's happiness data, this globalizing tendency can lead some people's life satisfaction estimates to become hitched onto the emotional rollercoaster. But who is more likely to hitch that ride?

A new study headed by Wilfrid Laurier University's Meaghan Barlow (2023), which includes collaboration with Wilroth and others, suggests that it's people who are older and have had more life experiences who seem to find a way to ride more steadily throughout each day's challenges and delights. In summarizing previous research, the authors note that this "could impart older adults with a greater understanding of the limited informational value of their current emotions in the broader landscape of their life as a whole and thus reduce their levels of emotion globalizing." In other words, they don't sweat the small stuff.

Does Age Matter in Emotion Globalizing?

Across two studies comparing samples of older and younger women divided into two age groups, the Laurier research team tested the extent to which each age group would engage in emotion globalizing as it contributed to emotional rollercoasters. Again, they defined this as occurring when a person's life satisfaction is hitched to current emotions. The research team also took into account the "boundaries" of emotion globalizing, meaning that the tendency to globalize might vary according to the extent to which actual stressful events occurred. On a stressful day or after a stressful event, there could be a reason for people to let their bad mood seep into their life satisfaction.

Turning to the methods, participants completed a daily diary recording of their emotions, their level of life satisfaction, and the extent to which they found their days stressful. You can try this method yourself.

Ask yourself, first, about your day's level of life satisfaction by rating yourself (on a 1-7 scale) on these three items:

  • In most ways, my day was close to its ideal.
  • The conditions of my day were excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my day.

Now, write about your day's most stressful experience.

Finally, rate the emotions associated with that experience on a 0-4 scale:

Imagine doing this exercise every day for five days (as did the participants) and recording your responses. You might see a trend occur in which your life satisfaction ebbed on very stressful days and soared on the good ones. Or, if you've become seasoned over time, maybe those stressful events have little bearing on your basic level of satisfaction with life.

Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

The actual studies conducted by Barlow and her colleagues separated "day" satisfaction from "life satisfaction" and "current" from "stressor-related" emotions, so there were several nuances in the method itself. However, the overall results showed that, when it came to negative (vs. positive) emotion globalizing, older adults were indeed able to brush off the impact of a bad day on their emotions and avoid stepping on the emotion rollercoaster.

Of course, these were age "differences" and not "changes," so there is no ability to measure how people changed over time. Also, comparing the two extreme age groups minimizes the potential to study more precisely age's relationship to emotional control. Nevertheless, the finding supported the main point, suggesting that there's something about the outlook that older people take that may be lacking from the emotion globalizing of their younger peers.

Getting off the Emotion Rollercoaster

What if you're not at that point in life yet where you've learned, through your experiences, to keep your emotional ride a steady one? Returning to the daily rating scales, consider whether you've allowed your current mood to color your sense of where your life is going. Are there ways you can reduce, while going through a stressful event during your day, your tendency to extrapolate from there to your entire sense of well-being? What if your laptop gave way when you needed it most? Can you reframe the experience as having some sort of silver lining? (Maybe you're reacquainting yourself with the joys of paper and pencil).

The findings that the older women in this study could keep their negative emotions at bay are interesting in and of themselves as a study on aging. The Barlow et al. study adds to a growing body of literature showing how and why older adults show a more positive outlook on life. Furthermore, the findings suggest indirectly that those people who keep their views on the more optimistic side live longer and are the ones still around to be tested in their later adult years.

To sum up, if you thought you couldn't control your emotion rollercoaster, this study's methods show that it's possible to step from there to a moving walkway that will bring you closer to the path of fulfillment.

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Willroth, E. C., John, O. P., Biesanz, J. C., & Mauss, I. B. (2020). Understanding short-term variability in life satisfaction: The Individual Differences in Evaluating Life Satisfaction (IDELS) model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(1), 229–248.

Barlow, M. A., Willroth, E. C., Wrosch, C., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2023). When daily emotions spill into life satisfaction: Age differences in emotion globalizing. Psychology and Aging, 38(7), 644-655.

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