Studies show older adults have better emotional skills
In our last column, we discussed emotional intelligence (EI or EQ). Today's column is about research that shows seniors have higher emotional intelligence than younger people.
Emotional intelligence is a relatively new concept. It was popularized by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who was a science journalist for The New York Times. His 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence,” was a bestseller.
According to psychologists, EI improves social relations because the emotionally intelligent person perceives emotions, uses them in thought, understands their meanings, and manages them better than others can.
A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley supports the theory that emotional intelligence can improve as we enter our 60s. Psychologist Robert Levenson and his team are tracking how our emotional strategies and responses change as we age.
“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships, and caring for and being cared for by others,” Levenson said. “Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”
In one study, researchers looked at how 144 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s and 60s reacted to neutral, sad and disgusting film clips. In particular, they examined how participants used techniques known as “detached appraisal,” “positive reappraisal” and “behavior suppression.”
For detached appraisal, participants were asked to adopt an objective, unemotional attitude. For positive reappraisal, they were told to focus on the positive aspects of what they were seeing. And for behavior suppression, they were instructed not to show any emotion.
Older people were the best at reinterpreting negative scenes in positive ways using positive reappraisal, a coping mechanism that draws heavily on life experience and lessons learned.
By contrast, the study’s younger and middle-aged participants were better at using “detached appraisal” to tune out and divert attention away from the unpleasant films. This approach draws heavily on the prefrontal brain’s “executive function,” a mechanism responsible for memory, planning and impulse control, which diminishes as we age.
Meanwhile, all three age groups were equally skilled at using behavior suppression to clamp down on their emotional responses.
“Earlier research has shown that behavior suppression is not a very healthy way to control emotions,” Levenson said. The study concludes, “Older adults may be better served by staying socially engaged and using positive reappraisal to deal with stressful challenging situations rather than disconnecting from situations that offer opportunities to enhance quality of life.”
In another study, researchers tested how our sensitivity to sadness changes as we age.
In that experiment, 222 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s and 60s were tested. The older adults showed more sadness in reaction to emotionally charged scenes, compared to their younger counterparts.
“In late life, individuals often adopt different perspectives and goals that focus more on close interpersonal relationships,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Benjamin Seider, lead author of the study. “By doing so, they become increasingly sensitized to sadness because the shared experience of sadness leads to greater intimacy in interpersonal relationships.”
Contrary to popular belief, heightened sensitivity to sadness does not indicate a higher risk for depression in the context of Seider’s study, but is actually a healthy sign, Levenson pointed out.
“Sadness can be a particularly meaningful and helpful emotion in late life, as we are inevitably confronted with and need to deal with the losses we experience in our own life, and with the need to give comfort to others,” Levenson said.