Contrary to what we may think, getting older is actually not all that bad. There may be financial and emotional challenges, and health conditions may change the way we live. But according to an abundance of research, older people have lower levels of negative affect, or disposition, than younger people. To better understand why this is, Amanda J. Shallcross of the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver recently led a study that looked at acceptance. She believes that acceptance to negative life events weakens the negative reactions to those events and causes them to impact a person’s affect less. In other words, as we age we are more accepting of things and, ultimately, less unhappy.
Shallcross used the emotional states of anger, anxiety, and sadness to explore her theory. She evaluated 340 participants ranging in age from 21 to 73 years old and subjected them to a stress-inducing experiment designed to cause negative affect. She measured their responses to the induction at the time of the experiment and several more times over the next six months. She found that the older individuals had more acceptance of the stressful condition and responded with less anger and anxiety than the younger participants. However, she did not find lower levels of sadness in the older participants.
These results suggest that as people age they learn to accept conditions in their lives. Perhaps anger and anxiety no longer serve their goals of forming intimate relationships, maintaining family bonds and social networks. They may alter their emotional responses to events in order to secure those relationships. As for sadness, Shallcross believes that older individuals may actually benefit from acceptance there as well. Because they experience more adversity, loss, and life challenges as they age, older individuals should have higher levels of sadness than younger individuals. But in this study, their sadness was equal to the younger participants. Again, Shallcross believes that this was the result of acceptance. “This skill may decrease levels of sadness to remain on par with those of younger individuals,” said Shallcross. “Thereby, net levels of sadness remain constant across age groups.” Overall, these findings demonstrate that acceptance is an important skill for maintaining a positive well-being. And most importantly, people do not have to wait until they are old to acquire that skill. It can be learned at any age.
Shallcross, A. J., Ford, B. Q., Floerke, V. A., and Mauss, I. B. (2012). Getting better with age: The relationship between age, acceptance, and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031180
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