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.
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."