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Are We More Positive As We Age?

Older adults spot happiness with ease

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A middle-aged man smiles broadly

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There’s a stereotype that older adults are super cranky misanthropes, while teenagers are super sulky. A new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at how people of all ages read social cues—and found some interesting results that challenge these perceptions.

“We know that the everyday experiences of an adolescent [are] 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,” wrote the study’s senior author, Laura Germaine, Ph.D., of McLean Hospital, the psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School. The test was conducted online using a large sample: 10,000 males and females ages 10 to 85. They were shown images of faces and asked to answer questions such as “Which face is sadder?” or “Which face is angrier?”

The researchers found that sensitivity to anger expressions rose quite a bit during early to mid-adolescence. This helps explain why teenagers are sensitive to any form of social threat, such as bullying, mean behavior, or their mother asking them to take a shower. “The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development,” wrote one of the study’s authors, Lauren Rutter, Ph.D.

On the other end of the age spectrum, as humans age, they get less sharp when it comes to recognizing facial cues for fear and anger, but their ability to see happiness cues remains the same. “It’s well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general,” wrote Germaine, “but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness.” This, even though older adults often experience visual decline.

Germaine writes that these findings correlate with other research that has shown older adults in general have a more positive outlook and experience more positive emotions. So good news, older readers: We may have to squint a little, but we can still know happiness when it’s right in front of us.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellbeing Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 


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