Contrary to the popular stereotypical perception of grumpy old people, apparently this image doesn’t hold up anymore under closer inspection, researchers say. “There is evidence here that emotional health and regulation improve with age,” says Daisy Burr, a PhD student who led the study with Gregory Samanez-Larkin, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
For the study in the journal 'Emotion', researchers pinged 123 study participants aged 20 to 80 on their cell phones three times a day for 10 days. The researchers asked participants to indicate how they felt on a five-point scale for each of eight emotional states, including contentment, enthusiasm, relaxation, and sluggishness. Then they asked whether participants desired anything right then, including food, alcohol, cigarettes, social media, shopping, talking to someone, sex, sleep, or work. They could report up to three temptations at once.
The researchers also assessed each participant on a standard measure of 'global life satisfaction,' which determined their general well-being, regardless of the moment-to-moment moods. The researchers wanted to find out how positive or negative feelings and the ability to resist temptations might change as people get older.
They discovered that the older adults in the study were more stable and “less volatile in their emotions,” Samanez-Larkin says. And age, it turns out, can more strongly predict the ability to resist temptation than the emotional state.
A person’s goals change with age, Samanez-Larkin says. The older person may be more oriented toward the present and “trying to maximize well-being every day. You want to feel good as much as possible.” The researchers say the findings better reflect real-world conditions because they surveyed participants in their own time and space, rather than having them respond to cues in a laboratory setting.
Burr adds that older people do a better job regulating their emotional state when allowed to do what they want. In the end, Burr’s analysis of the data found people experiencing more negative affect do worse resisting desires. Younger study participants who had higher levels of life satisfaction did better resisting desires. But older adults performed better at resisting temptation, regardless of their life satisfaction. Additional researchers are from Vanderbilt University. The National Institute on Aging supported the work.