It's generally considered common sense that the typical teenager has a different set of emotional sensitivities than a middle-aged or older person. As we age, we get less angsty, certainly. But do we actually get happier?
This is one question that was examined in a groundbreaking new study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is one of the largest studies of its kind to examine how people of all ages detect subtle changes in social cues, and to measure how our emotional sensitivity intensifies or wanes as we get older, reports MedicalXpress.com.
Part of what made this research so unprecedented was that subjects were tested using a web-based platform, which allowed the study to examine a massive sample size: nearly 10,000 men and women, ranging in age from 10 to 85.
Participants were shown images of faces, presented in pairs, and were asked "Which face is more angry?," "Which face is more happy?," or "Which face is more fearful?"
"From studies and anecdotal evidence, we know that the everyday experiences of an adolescent is different from a middle aged or older person, but we wanted to understand how these experiences might be linked with differences in basic emotion understanding," said Laura Germine, who is the technical director of the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry and director of the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology.
Other than confirming that sensitivity to negative emotions like anger become heightened during early to mid-adolescence, the study also found that this sensitivity consistently declines as we get older. This is what might be expected as we age, as many of our cognitive and emotional capabilities wane over time, but researchers noticed something else that bucked this expectation. While our sensitivities to negative emotions do decline as expected, our sensitivities to positive emotions do not.
"It's well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general, but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness," said Germine.
This would certainly explain the layman's observation that older people tend to be happier and more positive overall. But now we know that this march toward optimism does not seem to come from increased wisdom. Rather, it seems to come from the mere fact that older people are just worse at noticing what's negative around them.
"What's remarkable is that we see declines in many visual perceptual abilities as we get older, but here we did not see such declines in the perception of happiness," she said. "These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook."
The fact that we seem to be immune to cognitive declines when it comes to positive perceptions is certainly interesting. Why are we protected in this one way as we age, but suffer decline in so many other areas? The next step for researchers will be to answer questions like these, and to see how mental health issues, such as anxiety, might impact our emotional development.