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.
All three groups were equal in suppressing their emotions. By early adulthood, "individuals are already confident in their ability to enact 'brute force' strategies such as suppression, and this confidence remains stable through the 60s," the study adds.
That's not necessarily a good thing, according to Levenson, co-author of the study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging. He worked with Michelle Shiota, now an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
"We just sort of clamp down and not let our emotions show," Levenson said. We apparently start learning to do it as infants. Seniors are as good at that as they were in their teens as they "poker-faced their way through life, unchanged by experience."
"That's not very healthy," he said. "It's probably the worst thing you can do. If you don't show what you are feeling, other people are clueless. They don't respond to you in helpful ways."
The impact is measurable.
"When you clamp down your emotions you amplify the physiological costs of the emotion," he said. "If you get angry, your blood pressure is going to go up 10 points. If you suppress the anger, it will go up 20. We're always good at it, but we should not use it."
The seniors excelled at a method called positive reappraisal.
"That's where you take lemons and make them into lemonade," Levenson said. Apparently one of the things we learn along the way is compassion for others. That's particularly important because many studies have shown that the most rewarding way to grow old is to be circled by friends who really care. Not a bad lesson to learn.
The Berkeley work concentrates on three generations, from their 20s through their 60s, but it coincides with similar research that indicates our emotions -- or control thereof -- begin evolving even earlier, generally for the better.
Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg studied emotional maturity -- a broader field than emotional intelligence -- in age groups ranging from 10-11 years old to 26 and older.
Steinberg and his colleagues found maturing as the years passed, improving such things as impulse control, sensation-seeking, resistance to peer influence and risk perception.
That, of course, is in agreement with many studies showing that the adolescent brain sees the world quite differently, especially when it comes to risk and impulses.
Interestingly, the Temple study found increases in "cognitive capacity" from ages 11 to 16 and then no improvements after age 16, exactly the opposite of the pattern found for growth in emotional maturity.
It all suggests that we can grow emotionally throughout our lives, learning how to deal with death and dying, and maintaining the ability to include others in our daily struggles. Many studies have shown that there may be nothing more important than maintaining a social life and meeting future challenges head-on. So bring 'em on.
Maybe that's why they call some older folks "grey panthers."