Wading Through Crisis

How older adults find silver linings after negative events.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

The happiest of lives contain negative events. We all experience the death of loved ones, public tragedies, and some have professional or financial setbacks. As we write this, the world is in the midst of a public health crisis, with the COVID-19 outbreak currently in 169 countries. 

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

Although sometimes negative events are unavoidable, the ability to adequately cope following their occurrence allows us to move forward and reduce their negative impact (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Age impacts how we respond to negativity in our daily lives. With increased age, we report reduced physiological responses to negative interpersonal stressors (Neupert, Almeida, & Charles, 2007) and find these situations less stressful (Birditt, Fingerman, & Almeida, 2005). When negativity is experienced, increased age is associated with a greater ability to reduce negative emotional states more quickly (Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, & Nesselroade, 2000). 

Advancing age not only bestows an increased ability to manage negative emotions when they are initially encountered, but it can also influence how emotional events are remembered. That is, we are more likely to remember a greater proportion of positive relative to negative events (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). 

When we do remember an emotional event, age is associated with changes in how we experience that memory at the time of retrieval. For instance, recalling the death of a loved one may contain negative elements such as the sadness associated with the loss. But it may also contain positive elements, such as how they were cherished by their community. 

 Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

As we age, we are more likely to focus on these positive elements, or “silver linings,” even when thinking about highly negative events from our past (Ford, DiBiase, & Kensinger, 2018; Ford, DiGirolamo, & Kensinger, 2016). Age may also be linked to changes in how time influences highly emotional memories: While young adults show a tendency to focus on negative elements as time passes, increased age is associated with a reduced focus on these same negative elements over time (Ford, DiBiase, Ryu, & Kensinger, 2018). 

Our tendency to remember more positive information as we age may be partially driven by changes in attention. We are more likely to attend to positive relative to negative information. This makes it more likely that that positive information will be successfully stored and later remembered (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). However, increasing age may also be associated with important cognitive changes that further diminish the richness of negative memories at the time of retrieval. Specifically, as we age, the role of prefrontal brain regions shifts from supporting retrieval of negative details to dampening retrieval of these same details (Ford & Kensinger, 2017; Ford & Kensinger, in press). Although this change is associated with reduced memory performance, the selective reductions for negative, relative to positive, details suggests that it might be adaptive rather than indicative of cognitive decline. This is supported by the fact that these age-related changes are strongest in cognitively healthy individuals (Ford & Kensinger, 2014). 

This post discussed a number of ways that age is associated with a more positive outlook of our personal past, which enhances well-being and life satisfaction. In the next post, we will further explore how age-related changes in social relationship quality may also be beneficial.


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