WASHINGTON — People tend to get happier as they age, and a new study could explain why: Older adults may be better able to deal with negative emotions like anger and anxiety.
In the study, older adults were less likely than younger adults to feel angry and anxious in their everyday lives, as well as when they were asked to perform a stressful task.
In addition, older adults scored higher on a test designed to measure how well participants accept their negative emotions. The researchers call this trait "acceptance," or a tendency to be in touch with rather than avoid negative emotions.
The results may explain a paradox that's been seen in many other studies: Despite declines in physical and mental health, older adults are happier than young or middle-age adults. [5 Reasons Aging Is Awesome]
Younger people could take advantage of the findings to experience more happiness well before they grow old, said study researcher Iris Mauss, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Acceptance is good for anyone," Mauss said. "It just seems to be the case that older people use it more than younger people. They're sort of wise to it."
The study involved 340 adults ages 21 to 73 who rated their anger and anxiety levels each day over a two-week period, and before and after they were required to give an on-camera speech with little time to prepare.
Participants also rated statements to gauge their level of emotional acceptance, such as "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling," and "I think some of my emotions are bad or inappropriate and I shouldn't feel them." (Participants who said that these statements were "very often true" would be considered to have lower acceptance.)
The researchers don't know why the ability to accept negative emotions gets better with age. But one idea is that, as people grow old, they experience more life events that are out of their control, such as disease and the death of loved ones. With more of these life experiences, people may learn that it is futile to try to control such events, and that there are things that they need to accept, Mauss said.
The study was presented here at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science on May 24. It was published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.