Emotions and Aging

The year I turned fifty, I divorced for the second time in my life. The first time was when I was 28. Without going into detail, the circumstances of both separations were extremely hard. However, I noticed a great difference in the way I personally handled the situation, and especially the way I managed my emotions. While the first time I was swept away by the drama of it and got completely submerged in the chaos of emotions, in the separation of the father of my children I experienced myself in a completely different manner.

A lot of my personal experience can be explained by the way our emotions, and our relation with emotions change when we grow older. One of the aspects is that, with time, we become emotionally more agile. That is to say that we can still experience a wide ray of emotions like sadness, anger and grief, but at the same time become more skilled at handling these emotions. Not so much by changing these so-called ‘negative’ emotions, but rather by accepting that they form part of human life and that we need to take care of them and relate to these emotions in a creative and compassionate way. This is one of the reasons why cognitive behavioral therapy, focused on changing the way you think and behave, is effective for younger people, while Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, encouraging people to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than altering them, has proven to be specifically effective for older adults.

In aging, we generally become more mindful of our emotions, allowing us to move from ‘reacting’ to ‘responding’ in a wise and well balanced manner. By first giving yourself time to stop, and to become conscious of the situation, the response is likely to be more thoughtful, compassionate or effective than a reaction. When you react to a situation you fuse with it and become it. This is what happened to me after the separation in my twenties. I went from one reaction to the next and felt like I was literally in an emotional rollercoaster. The experience in my fifties was completely different. The rollercoaster I was in made me realize even more the experience of a deep and stable sense of myself in the ever-changing current of life. This personal experience is actually backed up by science.

While old age is often associated with a variety of ills, research consistently finds that older adults experience more positive emotions than their younger counterparts. One of the reasons for this ‘well-being paradox’ is that people become more mindful when they age. For instance, middle-aged and older adults are less physically and emotionally reactive to interpersonal stressors than younger adults. Older adults also move out of highly negative emotional states faster than younger adults do, and maintain the absence of negative affect more consistently. For example, older adults experience anger less frequently, and less intensively, than their younger counterparts. This is one of the reasons why older adults report greater well-being than their younger versions.​

Another difference that I experienced is that I was more capable of experiencing apparently contrasting emotions, thoughts and feelings at the same time. Such complexity of emotional experience is also related to aging. For example, while younger and middle-aged adults experience anger in a one-dimensional manner, older people may feel angry and compassionate at the same time. Older adults more often have the experience of pleasant and unpleasant states in a coincidental or temporally-related fashion, which is helpful for regulating our emotional life in a balanced manner.

Finally, an aspect that changes with aging is that, as older adults, we experience our emotions in a more nuanced, refined manner, a phenomenon called ‘emotional granularity’. Emotional granularity is not only about employing a rich emotional vocabulary, but also about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely. This can make a difference to your life. When you label your emotions more accurately, it helps to put parameters around what you actually need to be doing.

Becoming more mindful of emotions, understanding the nuances between different (grades of) emotions, increased capacity of emotional agility and of handling emotional complexity are just some of the many aspects in which we psychologically can grow with aging.

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