Those findings were true even after controlling for older people’s overall level of satisfaction with life.
“These results demonstrate how emotional experience is related to more successful desire regulation in everyday life and provide unique evidence that emotional health and regulation improve with age,” the study’s authors conclude.
Past research that has looked into the effect of age on emotional regulation — considered a key component of emotional health — has had mixed results. Some studies have shown that older people are able to regulate their emotions better than younger individuals, but others haven’t.
Much of that research, however, was conducted in laboratory settings. The authors of the current study — a team of researchers from Duke and Vanderbilt Universities — wanted to investigate the effect of age on emotional regulation in a “real-world” setting.
How the study was done
For their study, the researchers recruited 123 people, aged 20 to 80. All were psychologically and cognitively healthy. Before the study began, the participants underwent a “global life satisfaction” assessment, which determined their overall psychological well-being (rather than how they might feel emotionally at any one moment).
During the study itself, the participants were sent text messages three times a day for 10 days. Each message asked them to rate on a five-point scale how they felt emotionally for eight separate emotional states, including calmness, enthusiasm, sadness/loneliness, sluggishness and fearfulness/nervousness.
They were also asked whether they had desired something within the previous three hours — food, alcohol, cigarettes, social media, shopping, talking to someone, sex or sleep — that had presented a self-control conflict. If they had, they were asked to indicate the strength of the temptation (on an eight-point scale) and whether they had successfully resisted it.
The researchers then analyzed all that data to see if emotions — both positive and negative — changed with age. They also examined whether age had an effect on how people experienced and regulated their desires.
The data revealed that people at the older end of the age continuum in the study reported significantly higher levels of positive emotions and significantly lower levels of negative ones than those at the younger end. That finding held regardless of how satisfied — or unsatisfied — the older adults were with their lives, although, not surprisingly, the older people who were most satisfied with their lives experienced the lowest levels of negative emotions.
In other words, the older people’s emotions tended to be more stable and “less volatile,” says Gregory Samanez-Larkin, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in a released statement.
Older people were also, on average, more successful than younger adults at resisting desires that were in conflict with their personal goals, even though they reported experiencing significantly stronger desires than younger individuals.
“Importantly, older adults did not experience or attempt to regulate desires more frequently — rather they were overall more successfully regulating them when they occurred,” Gregory Samanez-Larkin and his colleagues explain in their paper.
Why do older people have a greater ability to resist temptation?
It may be because they’re more oriented toward the present and, thus, “trying to maximize well-being every day,” says Samanez-Larkin. “You want to feel good as much as possible.”
Limitations and implications
This study involved a relatively small number of people, and most of them (86 percent) were white. The findings might be different if a larger and more group of participants had been followed.
In addition, the five-point scale that the study’s participants used to self-report their emotional states may not be nuanced enough to allow people to accurately reflect how they are feeling.
Still, this was a real-world study, one in which people reported their emotions while going about their everyday lives. Furthermore, the findings align with other research that has found that emotional health improves with age.
“Future research would benefit from examining whether age-related differences in emotional experience are related to cognitive biases,” Samenez-Larkin and his co-authors conclude. “For example, related studies have illustrated older adults preferentially process positive over negative information in cognitive tasks, known as the age-related positivity effect. However, it is unclear how differences in such cognitive biases necessarily cause the improvements in emotional experience across adulthood or vice-versa.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on Emotion’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall, even though the study was supported by public money from the National Institute on Aging.