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Aging, Acceptance and Affect

Our relationship to feelings may be key to older adults' emotional well-being.

Elderly hands

Dylan Thomas's father was 76 when he died, prompting his son to write some of the most well-known and beloved lines in English poetry:

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Biographer Paul Ferris writes that Dylan's father was known for his temper, and that "this backbone of angry dignity that his son grieved to see breaking long after" must have led to the son's plea to "Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray" (Dylan Thomas: The Biography, p. 8). Dylan would follow his father to the grave within a year of his father's death, when the poet was only 39 years old.

We all know that aging brings inevitable declines in both physical and cognitive functioning. Life just gets harder rather than easier as we watch our parents and eventually our cohorts die, as we are unable to participate in sports or other activities we once enjoyed, and as we have to work harder to remember or understand what used to come effortlessly.

At the same time, developmental psychology tells us that we also tend to experience lower negative affect—more calmness and serenity—as we age. In a study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ("Getting Better With Age: The Relationship Between Age, Acceptance, and Negative Affect"), researchers asked the question of why this is the case, even though at the same time we lose ground in other areas, which one might assume would lead to greater and more rather than less intense and fewer negative emotions.

The study of 340 subjects aged 21-73 suggests that the link or mediating factor between the physical and mental challenges of our latter years and specific negative emotions, especially anger and anxiety, may be acceptance, which they found increased with age.

What Acceptance Is and Is Not

The authors stress the importance of understanding what acceptance is not:

  • Acceptance does not mean avoiding painful feelings.
  • Acceptance is not the same as resignation.
  • Acceptance is not the same as optimism.
  • Acceptance is a step beyond initial feelings.
  • One can accept emotions without accepting the circumstances that led to those emotions.

They define acceptance as active, nonjudgmental engagement with emotions, both negative and positive. They remind us that "acceptance is associated with initial increases in one's experience of negative emotion," but that nonjudgmental engagement "diffuses emotions relatively quickly" (p. 744). Engagement with rather than avoidance of negative emotions is important because emotions, both pleasant and painful, serve important purposes, such as aiding us in emotional intelligence and overall mental well-being:

"[T]he goal of acceptance is not to reduce negative affect but rather to change one's relationship with negative affect by engaging with all emotional experiences (including negative ones) in a nonjudgmental way." (p. 743)

The findings also suggest that while anger and anxiety decrease over the lifespan, sadness does not. Nor, however, does it increase. Sadness may be more valuable in our older years than anger or anxiety, as it aids in sympathy and communication, and acceptance may play a role in moderating our experience of sadness even in the face of persistent loss so that it does not become overwhelming.

Why Acceptance Matters

The study's authors remind us that, as a strategy to regulate our emotions, acceptance can be practiced by almost anyone, regardless of declining memory or other cognitive functions. Improving our ability to feel and accept painful emotions may, in the long term, lead to less anger and anxiety in years when we need calmness and serenity the most.

A son may wish for his father to rage and curse against life's final years, but most of us would probably prefer a gentler journey into our own good night.

Photo credit: julief

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