When we are young, our skills tend to improve with age and experience. But once we are well into adulthood, it may start to feel as if it’s all downhill. With every advancing year, we become slightly more forgetful, somewhat slower to respond, a little less energetic.
Yet there is at least one important exception: In the emotional realm, older people rule supreme.
For the past 20 years, Susan Turk Charles, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, has been monitoring the shifting moods, the sense of satisfaction, the moments of contemplation and the occasional outbursts of anger, sadness and despair of people of all ages — with a special interest in how we handle and experience emotions as we grow older. She and her colleagues have found that, on average, older people have fewer but more satisfying social contacts and report higher emotional well-being…. “I took a class from Laura Carstensen at Stanford, and she was the first to say that there was more development after age 18. She was finding that unlike physical fitness or cognition, where you may see slowing or declines, emotional regulation and experience are often as good, if not better, as we age… Some neuroscientists believe that because we’re processing information a little slower with age, that makes us think before we act. We do see a decline with age in overall mass of the brain’s frontal lobe, the part that is responsible for emotion regulation, complex reasoning and speed of processing. But researchers also find that older adults often exhibit greater prefrontal cortex activity than younger adults when processing emotions.
“A lot of work has found that older people have a positive bias, even without realizing they’re doing this. Their default mode is ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Older people more often let go of a situation they experience as negative, especially with friends and family. So it is picking their battles that we think older adults are better at…”
Q: Centenarians report overall high levels of emotional well-being. Some may wonder whether it might just be that people who have more positive attitudes, or encounter less adversity, live longer.
“It is true that people with satisfying relationships and positive emotions live longer. Researchers have looked at what could explain this, and they find that psychological well-being is related to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and better cardiovascular health.”
Asked for suggestions, the researcher proposes an inner strategy that “takes you away from focusing on the future and reminds you that the present moment is the most important.”
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