People Really Do Mellow with Age

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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  • David

    January 28th, 2013 at 10:07 PM

    I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing! Acceptance, for all we know could also mean the older folk actually begin to accept things the way they are and they are exhausted for zest. There is no go-getting and high energy that drives them forward. If you learn to accept things better doesn’t it mean you tend to strive less for change and in turn a better situation for yourself?!

  • Laney s

    January 29th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    I don’t know. . . seems like everyone I know who is getting older is getting more and more grumpy all the time! I sure hope that I can be better than that!

  • jerome

    January 29th, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    seems like a life skill that can only be learned through experience.often times the things we worry about so much do not mean a lot in the larger scheme of things. getting older lets you see the bigger picture. it teaches you critical life lessons that a few young people actually have learned.

  • space dust

    January 29th, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    Could this loss of anger and anxiety also mean a loss of willingness to take things on? or is this and out and out positive thing to have? because as far as I can see, older people and young blood each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. fair game if you ask me.

  • jude

    January 30th, 2013 at 6:12 AM

    I have to go with what David says here. Mere acceptance of things may reduce the unhappiness but is that enough?What about not being able push forward and achieve the results you want to? Doesn’t growing old reduce one’s drive to go for a goal according to this result? No pain no gain, right??

  • Tylor Reinhardt

    February 7th, 2014 at 6:30 PM

    I think it’s less about drive and ambition then just maturity. Many young people waist a lot energy and their and other people’s time on worthless stuff that doesn’t ultimately matter. So when you get older you become smarter and more efficient. The people who become worn down are the stupid and inefficient ones that also find out people won’t take their shit anymore. So as those people either die off or figure out they can’t do the same stuff, people around you that are your peers or about the same age mellow out and people learn you don’t have to put up with as much bullshit and can concentrate more on what really matters instead of doing stupid stuff to make people happy. Mostly because the people who did push everyone in that direction have changed. I figured out most of this when I was 12 years old but didn’t see the full reality until I reached the point where that actually happens. Make sense?

  • CJ

    February 7th, 2021 at 12:34 PM

    I came here hoping to get some reassurance that my father, who is more often than not in a horrible and tense mood and prone to outbursts, will eventually calm down. He’s 51 years old and shows no signs of slowing down, seems to be getting worse. I hope that the research here proves itself true in his case at some point soon. Very hard to deal with at times.

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