When we are young, skills tend to improve with age and experience. However, once we are adults, it feels like everything starts to go downhill. As the years go by, our memory slowly deteriorates, our reactions become slower, and our energy is less abundant.
But there is one important aspect that is exceptional - when it comes to emotional management, older people have an absolute advantage.
For the past 20 years, Susan Charles, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, has a special interest in people's emotional management and experience at different ages, so she has been observing emotional changes in people of all ages, satisfaction feelings, time for contemplation, and occasional outbursts of anger, sadness, and despair. She and her colleagues found that older adults had fewer but more pleasant social contacts overall, and they had higher levels of emotional well-being.
What's the secret to keeping a gray-haired mind cool? How can we benefit as many people as possible? What can young people learn from it? Let's hear what Charles has to say about her on these issues.
Why is the aging brain better at managing emotions?
Some neuroscientists believe that as we age, we process information more slowly, which makes us think twice before acting instead of acting impulsively. The part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation, comprehensive reasoning, and information processing is the frontal lobe, and its overall quality does decline with age. Researchers such as Mara Mather of the University of Southern California found that the prefrontal cortex of older adults is generally more active than younger ones when it comes to processing emotions.
Many studies have found that older adults have a positivity bias, although they may not be aware of it themselves. As we say, their default pattern is "don't worry about the trifles". We found that older adults are more likely to forget unpleasant experiences, especially when they are with friends and family. Therefore, we believe that older people are more prioritised. If you look at older adults with cognitive decline, they don't have this positivity bias.
Does our emotional satisfaction peak at a certain age?
It depends where you look at it. The highest values of positive emotions and lowest values of negative emotions we saw occurred between the ages of 55 and 70. Then there's the measure of "life satisfaction," which includes happiness, sadness, and cognitive assessments of life status. We found that middle-aged people scored slightly lower on this, with those in their early 50s having the lowest, but rising after that. This score increases with age. Only after the age of 75 did the negative emotion score increase again.
You write in your report that even centenarians have high levels of overall emotional well-being. I think, at this point, some people may wonder - do people with more positive attitudes or less adversity live longer?
There's no denying that people with satisfying relationships and positive emotions live longer. The researchers found that mental health was consistently associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and better cardiovascular health. Some researchers modeled this and saw the relationship between emotional regulation ability and age.
We found that emotional regulation improves with age. Although the influence of age factors is not very large, it is persistent. Emotion regulation was improved in most people. I don't know what the exact percentage is, but assuming that 40% of people remain stable, 40% improve, and 20% get worse, it still shows that people's average ability is increasing.
Why are some people not experiencing these improvements?
Most of the study subjects had the following characteristics: from Western countries, educated, living in industrialized wealthy societies. We know that these types of people are pretty much representative of the currently dominant white culture. This means that many of them are financially secure, have pensions, and our interviewees are usually working middle-class white people who are better educated. Compared with younger people of comparable socioeconomic status, this group of older adults appears to be doing much better. But if older adults are in poverty, without stable housing, under constant stress, or living in misery, you may not see those advantages.
Older adults had fewer but more enjoyable social contacts overall, and they had higher levels of emotional well-being.
Stable housing is also a general concern for young people. Are these burdens on their minds?
I think the really important thing to achieve emotional health is knowing that your future is secure and having the confidence not to worry about it. When you are young, there are many things to worry about. I sometimes tell my students that when an older person says, "This is the best time of your life, enjoy it to the best of your ability" and he's gushing over it. Many young people are living in torment.
My former mentor Laura Carstenson's "Theory of Social Emotional Selection" talks about how everyone perceives the remaining lifespan. Young people who are healthy and looking forward to a long life work hard, and they value gathering information and planning for the future. As people age, people find that they have less time left and begin to place greater emphasis on emotional goals. Older people would rather spend time with family and friends than meet strangers who might be more interesting.
A recent study published in the journal Science found that, like humans, older chimpanzees tend to have fewer but more effective social interactions, leading researchers to conclude that the condition does not necessarily depend on the perception of the passage of time . Do you agree that the mechanics behind these changes may be simpler than we thought?
I do think chimpanzees who live to old age develop healthy habits that are conducive to survival, but I don't think chimpanzees realize that the rest of their lives is getting shorter. I speculate that something happened that contributed to this. Human teens are stimulated by novelty, they love ups and downs, and they love adventure. The same may be true of chimpanzees, which may help them experience novelty, reproduce, and gain dominance and status. But these are exhausting, so as your body ages, it may be better to stay somewhere familiar and comfortable. Reducing energy expenditure may also apply to humans. In addition, Stanford University researcher Robert Sapolsky found that the grooming behavior of older wild male baboons indicated that they were less stressed. Perhaps chimpanzees, who are more pro-social and pay attention to their grooming peers, would benefit a lot from this kind of social support.
Of course, these incredible discoveries do make us rethink related issues from a different angle.