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.
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.
What is the secret behind this grizzled levelheadedness? How can as many people as possible benefit from it? And what can it teach the young? This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What makes a young scientist decide to specifically study the emotions of older people?
A: When I was an undergraduate, in the early ’90s, I was interested in development. At that time, the scientific literature was saying that our personality and emotions were fully developed by the time we are 18. I thought, “Wow, the next 50 years, nothing gets better? This is it?” Then 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. I fell in love with the idea of studying a process related to aging that is not defined by decline.
Q: Why might aging brains get better at managing emotions?
A: 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: Is there an age at which we reach a peak in emotional satisfaction?
A: It depends on what aspects you’re looking at, but the peak we see in terms of the highest positive and lowest negative emotions is between 55 and 70 years old. Then there’s the measure of “life satisfaction,” which includes both happiness and sadness, as well as a cognitive evaluation of how your life is going. For that, we often see lower ratings in midlife, lowest among people in their early 50s, and then it goes up.
Only after 75 do negative emotions start increasing again.
Q: Yet even 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.
A: 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.
But researchers still see an age-related advantage.
Emotion regulation improves with age; we see this again and again. These are small effects, but they are consistent. We see improvement for the majority of people, but not for everyone.
Q: Why might some people not experience these improvements?
A: Most of the people included in these studies are what researchers define as WEIRD — people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies. We also know that they often represent people from the dominant, White culture. This demographic profile means that a lot of people had financial security, they had pensions, there were social systems in place, and often the people we would interview were middle-class White people who were employed, who had a higher level of education. Compared to younger people of comparable socioeconomic status, the older people looked a lot better.
But if older people are in very vulnerable situations, without stable housing, faced with constant stressors, or if they are living in pain, you may not see these benefits.
Q: Your findings might certainly inspire people to pursue a more positive attitude. But if you’re someone who is getting older and is unhappy, it might not make you feel better to read this.
A: For people who are unhappy, it’s really important to look at how to structure your days to feel more fulfilled. I guess for everyone I would say: When you’re making a list of health behaviors, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating right are important. But social relationships are as important as your cholesterol level, yet often forgotten.
Make sure to spend time cultivating social ties, treasuring and prioritizing close friends and family members, at whatever age you are. Finding purpose and meaning in life is also vitally important. Finding and following an important purpose can be very emotionally gratifying.
Q: Is there a risk of becoming too emotionally comfortable?
A: Yes. You can be so comfortable that you no longer encounter challenges, and you need to stay engaged in cognitive challenges. In a recent study, we followed people over eight days. Every night, they were interviewed, and we’d ask about stressors. Did they get into an argument? Was there a situation where they could have argued, but decided not to? Are there problems at home or at work?
About 10 percent reported never experiencing even one stressor. They also reported being happier than those who reported at least one stressor. But we also found that they performed worse on cognitive tests compared to people who reported at least one stressor. They reported having received or given less help to others, and that they had spent more time watching TV.
Twenty years ago, we thought that if you have positive relationships and a certain lifestyle, you can have the highest emotional functioning, the highest cognitive functioning, the best physical health, the perfect life for you. Now it turns out to be a little more complicated. People who are reporting being happiest are also not as high in cognitive functioning.
This may be because people who have no stressors are spending less time with other people. The people you know and love are also sometimes the source of your stress. But they also challenge you and engage you in problem-solving activities. It’s not that you can find optimal well-being in all areas; there might be a trade off.
Q: So people should strive for some kind of balance? How would you suggest they achieve it?
A: People should strive for balance, but no one size will fit all. We know that people benefit from strong social ties, but people vary in the number of close friends and time they spend with others. People need to stay physically active, yet some prefer swimming and others jogging. Activities that are challenging for some people are boring for others.
To achieve balance, people need to know themselves and make decisions that create dynamic lives where they are socially active and engaged in a way that makes them feel a sense of belonging and makes them feel needed. They need activities that are challenging, where they learn new information and have to remember this information — this could be learning a new musical instrument or learning the layout of a new park or even an alternative world in a video game. They need to engage in physical activity that maintains or even enhances their physical health and functioning.
Q: Might there be a way for young people to press the fast-forward button to achieve some of the emotional benefits older people acquire with age, or should they just be patient?
A: In the past 10 years, people have been talking more about mindfulness as an emotional regulation strategy. It takes you away from focusing on the future and reminds you that the present moment is the most important. I think those are things that older people often do, but younger people may need to be reminded of. It would be wonderful if that was something youth could learn from older people.
I think as I grow older, I understand it more profoundly. I always get a kick out of experiencing what the research shows.