You're Not Getting Older; You're Getting More Complex

When it comes to aging and emotions, there are two common but equally inaccurate myths. On the one hand is the view that aging brings with it a second childhood and we become incapable of controlling our emotions. Alternatively, we're bound to become depressed as we get older because life becomes a steady stream of losses ranging from widowhood to retirement and, ultimately, our own mortality.

The truth is that aging brings with it more, not less, control of emotions. Regarding depression, older adults tend to be happier, not sadder, particularly because it's the happier ones who survive until their later years (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2014).

As anyone surviving those midlife years knows, furthermore, life becomes more complex the older you become. There are no 100 percent good times and no 100 percent bad times. You may be smack dab involved in the middle of a joyous occasion when a fleeting thought enters your mind about the work you left behind at the office. Conversely, in the midst of demoralization over a plan at work that failed to materialize, the vision of your adorable granddaughter may pop into your head to put everything in perspective.

The idea that our emotional lives become increasingly difficult to categorize as happy or sad fits with what's called the Differential Emotions Theory. According to this view, the more experiences we have, the more our feelings gain in complexity and elaboration. We can live comfortably in the gray area that resides in between pure happy and pure sad and maybe even learn to enjoy and appreciate it.

This idea was put to the test by University of Southern California's Stefan Schneider and Arthur Stone (2015) who used two nationally representative survey panels of individuals ages 15 to 90 living in the United States to study age differences in mixed emotions. The research team asked participants to recall the events of the previous day and then to rate three of those events on scales ranging from happy to sad.

Sorting through the ratings of nearly 50,000 events ranging from one to two hours in length, Schneider and Stone discovered a small but clearly discernible pattern with age. The older the participant, the greater the endorsement of statements reflecting mixed emotions. This finding held even after controlling for other factors related to age, such as retirement and disability. In other words, as we get older, we become more likely to view the many angles available for interpreting our life's experiences.

There's no reason, then, to worry if you have those feelings in which joy and sadness become intermingled. It doesn't mean that you're getting more depressed or losing control of your emotions. Take pride in your capacity to appreciate the subtleties of your emotional life, a feeling that should only add to your happiness and fulfillment.

Schneider, S., & Stone, A. A. (2015). Mixed emotions across the adult life span in the United States. Psychology And Aging, 30(2), 369-382. doi:10.1037/pag0000018

Whitbourne, S.K. & Whitbourne, S.B. (2014). Adult Development and Aging: Biopsychosocial Perspectives (5th Ed.), Hoboken NJ: Wiley.

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The Seven Myths Of Middle Age