Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have completed a series of studies showing that as we age, we become better at seeing the good things in life and managing our emotions to make the best of a bad scene.
But seniors tend to become sadder (not necessarily a bad thing) and more empathetic and compassionate, possibly because they have faced so many personal, irreversible, losses. The ambulance comes often to the retirement home.
"Lots of things about our lives develop early on, and then they decline with age, like our physical agility and our ability to think quickly," psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the studies, said in a telephone interview. "But we don't get bad at emotions. We actually start to develop refinements as we get older. Some emotions kind of stay the same, they were designed for the long run, but there are other things that we actually get better at."
The Berkeley work is in line with a hot button issue in the often-fuzzy field of psychology and human behavior. It's called emotional intelligence, frequently defined as "the ability to perceive, regulate and communicate emotions -- to understand emotions in ourselves and others."
The Berkeley team produced several studies this year zeroing in on how our emotional intelligence evolves as we age. In two large studies, the psychologists tested 366 persons in three age groups, from the 20s to the 40s and 60s. They were tested for how they responded emotionally to three film clips showing neutral, sad and disgusting (really disgusting) scenes.
The scientists wanted to determine how good their subjects were at detaching themselves from the emotional nature of the clips, or whether they could see something good even in sad scenes, or whether they could suppress their disgust at a woman eating part of a horse not normally consumed in the human diet.
During the testing the subjects were monitored for physiological changes, such as blood pressure and pulse rates. The participants were videotaped so any facial expressions could be studied. And they were asked to report on their feelings.
The older participants were significantly better at putting a positive light on even bad scenes, possibly reflecting their lifelong struggle to adapt to situations that are not always pleasant.
That success "appears to follow the adage 'older but wiser,' reflecting the belief that greater experience leads to a more mature and balanced perspective," the study notes.
But the younger and middle-aged people were better at diverting their attention away from the pathos in the film clips.
"That's called detached reappraisal, where basically we look the other way," Levenson said. "We pretend that a homeless person isn't there, and we direct our attention to something else."
That may get worse with time. Eventually, "the ability to look away goes away," Levenson said. But the homeless person doesn't go away, and a senior is very conflicted if he or she isn't doing anything about it.
"So detachment is a game for young people," Levenson said.