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As per a new study reported in PNAS, positive emotions and hedonic well being, like happiness and enjoyment, increase past the age of 50 (after reaching a nadir at that age)  , while negative emotions , like stress, worry and anger decline with age throughout.

This is the conclusion that Stone et al reached after analyzing response to a telephonic survey of 3,40,000 individuals resident in the US. Only one measure of global Well being was used and hedonic well being was evaluated by the self reported affect experienced on the previous day.

It was found that Global well being , which to my mind is more of a cognitive construct, showed a U shaped relationship with age with global well being dipping around the age of 50. Happiness and enjoyment , the positive hedonic well being measures exhibited a similar curve .  It thus appears that positive affect is more cognitively mediated and that may be the reason for the similarity.

Negative affects on the other hand showed a distinctly different curve, thus bolstering my claim that negative and positive emotions are two different things and should not be seen as opposites of each other on a single dimension. The underlying mechanisms and rationale of negative and positive emotions may be vastly different. While negative emotions lead to specific action tendencies, positive emotions lead to broaden-and-build effects of enhancing resources of all type.

To me the above bodes well. I’ll like to quote on how the authors interpret the results (and with which I agree).

The overall WB-age pattern calls out for explanation. Why are older people, on average, happier and less stressed than younger people? The results are generally consistent with Baltes’ (12) theory of increased “wisdom” and emotional intelligence with age (at least through middle age), wherein decreased negative affective states could be a result of increasing wisdom, and with Carstensen et al.’s (13) socioemotional selectivity theory, wherein older people have an increased ability to self-regulate their emotions and view their situations positively. They are also in accord with a “positivity effect,” wherein older people recall fewer negative memories than younger adults (14), and with the possibility that older people are more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults (15).

I would like to stress that cognitive abilities(especially the ability to interpret the same situation in a positive/adaptive light) increases with age and that may be the reason that despite negative experiences and lack of positive experiences, the old people are still able to appraise the situations differently and derive more positivity overall. I wont be surprised if it became apparent that emotions become more and more cognitive in nature as one moves up in age and less and less as a hardwired instinctual reaction to a given situation.

Stone, A., Schwartz, J., Broderick, J., & Deaton, A. (2010). A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (22), 9985-9990 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003744107

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