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Aging and Emotions

Do we "mellow out" with age, or have stronger emotional reactions?

Emotion regulation skills appear to increase during adulthood. Older adults report fewer negative emotions as well as more emotional stability and well-being than younger people. Older adults may also be savvier at navigating interpersonal disagreements than younger people. They may pay more attention to the good and less attention to the bad — and when they experience a negative emotion, they may be able to recover more quickly than younger people.

Thus, at first glance, there seems to be an emotional “mellowing out” with maturity and an increased and potentially deliberate ability to see the world through rose-colored glasses. Given these data, it is interesting to learn that older adults may react with stronger emotions than younger people in some situations.

Indeed, bad events may hit older adults harder than younger ones. In studies in which researchers try to create a negative mood in their participants, older adults can react with stronger emotions than younger people. This is particularly true if the investigators use negative stimuli that are relevant to older adults, such as stimuli about loss or injustice. In my research, we find that older adults react to films about loss with greater negativity than younger adults.

A recent study by Streubel and Kunzmann (2011) suggests that emotional arousal is a factor that needs more attention in aging research. That is, a focus on positive and negative emotions and aging may be too limited; rather a focus on the strength of emotions also is needed. In circumstances in which strong emotions are aroused, older adults may not be able to regulate their emotions as well as younger people. Indeed, in our data, where we see older adults reacting with stronger negative emotions than younger ones, the films are very powerful and highly relevant to older people.

Changes in emotions with age are complex. Older adulthood is not simply a time of emotional well-being and tranquility. Strong emotions exist and reactions to important life events may increase with age, rather than diminish. More research along these lines is needed for practitioners to learn how to help older adults navigate emotionally powerful events in their lives.