- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

At last, some good news about growing older, graciously.

A new study confirms that the older we get, the better we become at filtering out the annoyances of life and finding emotional contentment. It is, as the old 1944 swing tune put it, a true case of “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

Those over 65 beat those under 30 hands down.

“Older age is associated with improved emotional regulation — defined as the maintenance of positive affect and decrease of negative affect,” notes a study by three psychologists at the University of California and Stanford University that was released yesterday.

Researchers Susan Charles, Mara Mather and Laura Carstensen found that seniors were deft at “regulating their feelings.”

The group — ages 65 to 80 — don’t dwell on negative information or moods as much as their younger counterparts do. Seniors don’t “encode” them with greater meaning or go over them time and again in their minds, either.

Older people also are better at “actively enhancing their feelings at will,” simply by letting go of anxiety, ill will and other negative influences.

Psychologists call the process “socioemotional selectivity,” and have examined the concept for a decade. Older people, they say, realize that the proverbial clock is ticking and act accordingly, often heeding inner priorities and setting emotionally meaningful goals.

This theory is replacing less optimistic ideas set forth in the 1950s that human emotions deteriorated with the body in a “downward trajectory” as the years accumulated. That idea, contemporary therapists contend, was based more on conjecture than real evidence.

But is gracious old age simply a mask for senior citizen burnout? Some cynics might suggest that older folks are just too tired to care anymore — and thus are placid.

The researchers found that there was a definite, active thought process involved. The seniors “recalled more thoughts, feelings and evaluative statement than their younger counterparts,” the study stated, and they emphasized emotional rather than “perceptual” details.

The psychologists tested 208 healthy adults in three age groups — from 18 to 29 years, 41 to 53, and 65 to 80 — chronicling their reactions to 64 photographs. The images were picked to elicit either a positive, negative or neutral response.

Positive images in the study included a man with his grandson, a sunflower, and a happy couple; negative images showed a cemetery, pizza covered with cockroaches, and a heap of garbage. The neutral shots included a line of people in a fast-food restaurant, an umbrella, and a rock climber.

The participants were shown the photos and asked to write a brief description of what they had seen.

In two separate studies, the older people consistently concentrated on and recalled the pleasant photographs. In one instance, the senior group recalled an average of only six of the negative images. Younger subjects recalled 13.

The researchers acknowledge that seniors just may have more life experience and are, therefore, better able to maintain their emotional equilibrium compared with the young and the restless. Some may have been brought up to focus on the good rather than the bad.

But the three psychologists made an interesting conclusion: Seniors just don’t have much use for all the negative stuff in their golden years.

In an experimental or study context, “negative information may be especially irrelevant to older people,” the study concludes.

The researchers intend to conduct further studies in less academic circumstances, using subjects who may be chronically ill or faced with difficult life decisions.

The findings appear in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

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