Not All Sadness Is the Same

Older and younger persons have different perspectives on emotions.

Posted Apr 26, 2016

We are pretty good at beating ourselves up. Shame and guilt are familiar emotions.  The self-help industry is thriving. Humans can get pretty down on themselves and we are looking for a way out.

SandervanderWerf/Shutterstock
Source: SandervanderWerf/Shutterstock

Psychological research suggests a natural antidote but it requires a tremendous investment of time. Stay relatively healthy and grow into your sixth decade and you are likely to reap the benefits of greater emotional well-being than at any other time in adulthood.   

Older adults may have some secrets to share that could benefit younger persons.

Older adults report better emotional well-being than younger persons.They have fewer negative moods that last for a shorter than for younger persons. 

My latest research, published in Aging and Mental Health, provides new insights into these differences. Not all negative emotions are equal when it comes to aging. Older adults have unique perspectives on sadness and loneliness

In our project, we asked younger and older persons to group words into similar categories. Younger adults associated more self-deprecating terms with sadness, such as being ashamed or disgusted with themselves, than older persons. A similar pattern was observed for lonely.

Age group differences were not limited to negative emotions. Older adults had a richer concept of what it means to feel serene than younger persons. In the word-grouping task, older adults associated more positive emotional terms with serene, such as cheerful, happy and joyful, than did younger people.

Overall, older adults had more positive perceptions of negative and positive emotions than younger persons.  Is aging into later adulthood necessary to enjoy these changes in emotion? Or is there something we can learn from older adults to help younger and midlife persons weather the storms of negative emotions and achieve more optimal well-being? This and similar questions drive a rich line of research on aging and emotion regulation that I plan to highlight in the months to come.

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