Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Ageing and emotion

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Ageing and emotion:
How is our emotional experience, expression, and control affected by ageing in later life?
Aarne Arvonen (1897–2009), the oldest Finnish man

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter discusses how our emotions are affected by ageing. Most importantly, this chapter will explore how we can harness an understanding of emotions and relevant theories to inform our perspective of ageing. We will begin by learning what is meant by "ageing" and "emotions". Then we will explore a selection of theories regarding ageing. Finally we will discuss key effects of ageing on our emotional functioning in later life. Finally, we will bring it together to analyse competing theories of ageing and come to some conclusions about how we can improve later age satisfaction.

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Four components of emotion based on Reeve (2009).

When considering what is meant by emotions what comes to mind? Happiness, sadness, anger? When we think of happiness we may imagine a smiling face, or perhaps jumping for joy. These outward expressions of happiness are but a component of what constitutes an emotion. Emotions are complex multidimensional interactions between four components (see Figure 1)[factual?].

From a theoretical standpoint, emotions have often been considered from either a cognitive or biological perspective. This separation of discourse is generated by the search for what causes emotions. Proponents of the biological perspective claim that emotions are not dependent on the cognitive appraisal, which in the cognitive perspective causes emotions[factual?]. Specifically, the cognitive perspective argues that an appraisal of the meaning of a stimulus generates an emotion which in turn triggers an appropriate response (Lazarus, 1991; Reeve, 2009). As such, individuals do not respond emotionally to stimuli they determine are irrelevant to their well-being (Reeve, 2009). Central to the biological argument is evidence from studies (Izard, Huebner, Risser, & Dougherty, 1980; Izard, Hembree, & Huebner, 1987) which observed the emotional functioning of infants. Proponents of the biological perspective argue that such findings show that cognitive appraisal is not necessary to emotions, as the infants, which did show emotional responses; lacked the cognitive capability essential to the assumption of the cognitive perspective (Reeve, 2009). Contemporary perspectives on emotion often consider the validity of both perspectives and focus on the parts relevant to their field of study. In determining how ageing affects emotions, this chapter examines age-related changes in the cognitive appraisal central to the cognitive perspective; and similar impacts on the biological components responsible for emotional processing.

Ageing[edit | edit source]

Ageing is a familiar concept to many, yet determining what specifically is meant by ageing is not a simple task. Rose (1991) defined ageing as "a persistent decline in the age-specific fitness components of an organism due to internal physiological deterioration" (p. 20). This definition was written from an evolutionary biology perspective wherein ageing is considered as a physiological process of decline. From a psychological perspective the concept of ageing also applies to one's cognitive developments across the lifespan, Erikson's theory of development is an example of cognitive ageing.

Theories of ageing[edit | edit source]

Three psychosocial theories of ageing are discussed below in order to provide a theoretical framework with which to base the later discussions of how ageing affects our emotions and what we can do to optimise our emotional functioning in later life.

Erikson’s stages of development[edit | edit source]

At the heart of the theory are eight stages of development (Wadensten, 2006), each dealing with a unique challenge to overcome. Erikson (Wadensten, 2006) suggested that by challenging and overcoming these problems the individual would successfully develop and thus mature. For each of the crisis[spelling?], the individual would have to undergo cognitive and biological development as Erikson believed that development was a complex process that was not solely biological or cognitive (Wadensten, 2006). He did emphasise the importance of cognitive appraisal as a means for individuals to respond to each crisis (Berk, 2011; Wadensten, 2006). Also, Erikson discussed how social influences affect how a person ages, as well as how society views them (Wadensten, 2006). Perhaps most important was Erikson’s idea of crisis faced by the individual at each stage of development and how the resolution of said challenges impacted future development. If the individual failed to achieve victory over the developmental crisis, then they would not have gained maturity and subsequent aversive effects would develop (Wadensten, 2006). Likewise, successful resolution of the crisis would lead to maturation and positive effects on one’s development (Wadensten, 2006). Therefore, Erikson’s theory can be said to provide a basis for successful ageing, this being the challenges faced at each stage and successful resolution of them. Of particular interest is Erikson's eighth stage which presents the crisis of ego integrity versus despair (Berk, 2011). This stage is experienced in later life, and involves acceptance of one's past decisions and mistakes (Berk, 2011).

Let's imagine[edit | edit source]

Imagine that in your twilight years you look back on your life and ponder the decisions you'd made. You wonder if maybe you should have stuck with your band instead of going to university, in doing so you begin to experience doubt about your life's course. However, you are soon reminded that had you not gone to university you would have never met your wife; you feel satisfaction. You decide that your life has been meaningful and are able to recollect your past experiences positively. Thus, you have navigated the crisis and maintained ego integrity.

Activity theory argues that social engagement is important for the well-being of the elderly.

Activity theory[edit | edit source]

The activity theory perspective of ageing claims that decline associated with ageing is due to reduced social interaction. This, as the theory states (Berk, 2011; Wadensten, 2006), is because our engagement in society is critical to our well-being. Unlike Erikson’s psychodynamic perspective, activity theory does not consider individual psychological development to be a requirement of ageing (Berk, 2011; Wadensten, 2006). Rather, it suggests that the effects of ageing can be mitigated by maintaining activity throughout the lifespan (Berk, 2011; Wadensten, 2006). In a practical sense this would involve maintaining one's relationships and social activities. It is important to note that activity theory does not require one to replace activities with similar ones (Wadensten, 2006), simply that activity levels are maintained.

Let's imagine[edit | edit source]

Imagine an individual that[grammar?] has played rugby throughout their life, as they grow older they experience physical decline and can no longer play. The loss of the social activity requires the individual to acquire new ones (Wadensten, 2006). So the individual joins a local fantasy rugby league; by replacing the rugby playing with a similar social activity the individual has maintained social engagement. According to activity theory (Berk, 2011; Wadensten, 2006), such replacements are essential in the promotion of successful ageing.

Disengagement theory[edit | edit source]

Figure X. Disengagement theory argues that social withdrawal is a natural mutual rejection between the aged individual and society.

Disengagement theory was first proposed in 1961 (Cumming & Henry, 1961; Wadensten, 2006) as a theory born out of findings from a study conducted in 1955 (Cumming & Henry, 1961). The study surveyed adults (age 50 and older) in order to determine how social interactions affected satisfaction (Cumming & Henry, 1961). By comparing scores against age, the researchers were able to track trends in social activity in relation to age. They found that age and number of social roles had a negative relationship (Cumming & Henry, 1961). They also found that the majority of responders who discussed loss of role responsibility felt that it was positive (Cumming & Henry, 1961). In understanding the origin of disengagement theory we can see how the theory was formed and see the evidence for it.

Disengagement theory opposes the view of activity theory by suggesting that acceptance of reduced social engagement in later life is essential to successful ageing (Cumming & Henry, 1961; Wadensten, 2006; Berk, 2011). So, when considering the previously mentioned example of the ageing individual who cannot play rugby, disengagement theory would promote acceptance of the change in circumstance. Therefore, it can be said that disengagement theory promotes acceptance of withdrawal from society as a natural and satisfying process that is integral to successful ageing. The theory does not provide a reason for why disengagement occurs, simply that individuals become more inwardly focused as they develop into old age (Cumming & Henry, 1961; Wadensten, 2006). Furthermore, it suggests that this process is a function of ageing rather than an effect of it (Cumming & Henry, 1961; Wadensten, 2006). The disengagement from society is not purely individually motivated as society rejects the ageing individual as well (Cumming & Henry, 1961) however certain relationships may remain persistent throughout the lifespan (Cumming & Henry, 1961).

How are our emotions affected by ageing?[edit | edit source]

Now that we have an understanding of three theories of ageing, we can approach the question of how age affects emotion. There are three important effects of ageing: on emotional experience, expression, and control.

The brain in later life: Implications for relevant theories[edit | edit source]

When we consider the biological definition of ageing, the effects of ageing on our physiology is the major concern. So to with the biological perspective of emotions. Certain structures of the brain do deteriorate with age (Jacques, Winecoff, & Cabeza, 2012). Luckily, the amygdala, ventral striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex regions of the brain related to emotional processing remain relatively intact throughout one's lifespan (Jacques, Winecoff, & Cabeza, 2012; Mather & Carstensen, 2005). Therefore, from a biological perspective, our emotions should remain relatively stable when ageing is the only factor considered. Interestingly, this raises the question of, "what accounts for decreases in emotional functioning in a physiologically healthy elderly individual?"[factual?]

Recognition and expression of emotion[edit | edit source]

Emotions have a social component that involves expression of our emotion states and recognition of others. Emotional expression in older age adults shows a decline as a result of age (Gross et al., 1997). However, the decline is in expression of negative emotions (Gross et al., 1997). Previous findings showed a negative relationship between age and emotion recognition. Sze, Goodkind, Gyurak, & Levenson (2012) challenged these findings, arguing that they had used static facial expressions which lacked the dynamic context of social interactions. By using a socially dynamic test and comparing scores with previously used methods they were able to show that older adults showed improved social recognition in dynamic social context[grammar?]. In this sense the social-expressive component of emotion is largely maintained in later life.

Emotional regulation: The happy elderly[edit | edit source]

Emotions help us navigate challenges and respond to change in circumstance. Yet whether or not emotions are beneficial is dependent on our ability to regulate them. Studies have shown that in later life people tend to experience less negative emotion (Mather & Carstensen, 2005; Lynchard & Radvansky, 2012; Gross et al., 1997; Berk, 2011). This is due to an increased ability for emotional regulation gained in later life (Mather & Carstensen, 2005; Berk, 2011). Mather (2012) found that later age adults are able to shift from intense negative emotions to positive ones faster than other ages groups. Also, the ability to differentiate between emotions and focus on specific emotional stimuli are sustained throughout the lifespan (Sze, Goodkind, Gyurak, & Levenson, 2012; Samanez-Larkin, Robertson, Mikels, Carstensen, & Gotlib, 2014). Mather (2012) observed that damage to structures involved in emotion processing reduced cognitive control and increased the risk of depressionTemplate:Expland.

Applying what we've learned[edit | edit source]

Here we will discuss how we can harness what we've learned to optimise our well-being in later life.

Why are emotions important?[edit | edit source]

Emotions help us to deal with life's many challenges, whether building relationships (social-expressive), recovering from negative experiences (emotional regulation), or simply knowing how to respond to an event (purposive component). They play an important role in maintaining our health. Psychological treatments which emphasise positive emotions can improve well-being (Fredrickson, 2000); and low levels of emotional health can produce higher levels of stress (Dua, 1994). It is in our best interest that our emotional capabilities are sustained through later life. From what we've covered throughout this chapter we can indeed see that there is much evidence supporting high emotional functioning in later life.

Disengagement versus activity theory[edit | edit source]

In the theories of ageing section we discussed disengagement and activity theory. Each proposed opposing frameworks for coping with later life based on increased or decreased social engagement. Emotions help us to navigate relationships. Due to the essential role of emotions in social interactions any decline in emotional functioning may have an adverse effect on our well-being in later life. Especially, if activity theory is correct in it's claim that continued social engagement is important for successful ageing[grammar?]. On the other hand, Erikson's theory emphasised acceptance of life changes in accordance with disengagement theory. Studies have shown that elderly adults experience fewer negative emotions due to superior emotional regulation and, that structures of the brain associated with emotion remain healthy in later life[factual?]. Cognitive perspective of emotion hinges emotional functioning on cognitive appraisal, which is largely maintained in later life[grammar?]. Attribution theory especially emphasises the importance of one’s ability to evaluate events. Both activity and disengagement theory place satisfaction in later life on the individual's ability to adapt to older age. Disengagement theory would seem to be supported by the available evidence [factual?] as it argues that later life is defined by resolution of circumstantial changes associated with ageing. However, activity theory is not to be disregarded as it is not limited by these findings[explain?].

In order for activity theory to be supported it would have to be shown that the engagement it requires is positively related to later life well-being. A study conducted by Harris & Bodden (1978) showed exactly that, when they took disengaged elderly individuals and had them participate in social activities. They found that higher psychological functioning was achieved through increased activity in the disengaged group (Harris & Bodden, 1978). These findings are supported by Phelan, Anderson, Lacroix, & Larson (2004) who conducted a survey of older adults in an effort to determine what they felt was most important to successful ageing. They found that social health was reported by the majority of participants as being essential for successful ageing (Phelan, Anderson, Lacroix, & Larson, 2004). Lazarus & Delongis (1983) note that cognitive appraisals change based on social, personal, and environmental contexts. Older adults who experience fewer context shifts and fail to cope with a context based stressor often continue to experience stress as result of continued exposure to that context and failure to cope. This would seem to suggest that if an elderly individual failed to overcome Erikson's eighth stage then reduced engagement may increase stress by reducing exposure to context shifts. Activity theory would then seem stronger in helping an individual to cope with dissatisfaction in later life; however, if an individual overcomes Erikson's crisis then satisfaction with reduced engagement may be preferable.

Let's imagine[edit | edit source]

If we recollect our aged rugby player who was faced with being unable to play rugby, we can now apply what we've learned. If he found himself dissatisfied with his circumstances and unable to reconcile his decisions then he would ill [say what?] benefit from social withdrawal, pursuing social activity would provide greater chance at improving well-being[grammar?]. Likewise, if he found he was satisfied with not playing rugby and recollect on his past positively then he would not need to pursue further social engagement.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter has informed you about how your experience, control, and expression of emotion is affected by ageing; as well as provide you with some ideas about how you can approach later life. The key points covered in this chapter are listed below.

  • Emotions are multidimensional interactions between four components.
  • Emotions comprise both cognitive and biological processes.
  • Ageing in a biological context refers to decline in physiological fitness.
  • Ageing in a psychological context incorporates cognitive development.
  • Erikson's eighth stage of development deals with ego integrity vs despair.
  • Activity theory argues that continued social activity is essential to successful ageing.
  • Disengagement theory argues that acceptance of inevitable social withdrawal is essential for successful ageing.
  • Structures of the brain related to emotions experience little decline with age.
  • Emotional recognition is improved with age in a dynamic social context.
  • Emotional expression declines with age as a result of improved emotional regulation.
  • Emotional regulation improves with age.
  • Later life is marked by increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Berk, L. E. (2011). Emotional and social development in late adulthood. In Exploring Lifespan Development (pp. 473-499). Retrieved from

Cumming, E., & Henry, W. E. (1961). Growing Old. New York: Basic Books.

Dua, J.K. (1994). Job Stressors and Their Effects on Physical Health, Emotional Health and Job Satisfaction in a University. Journal of Educational Administration, 32(1), 59-78. doi:10.1108/09578239410051853

Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and well-being. Prevention & Treatment, 3(1), 1. doi:10.1037/1522-3736.3.1.31a

Gross, J. J., Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Tsai, J., Götestam Skorpen, C., & Hsu, A. C. (1997). Emotion and aging: Experience, expression, and control. Psychology And Aging, 12(4), 590-599. doi:10.1037/0882-7974.12.4.590

Harris, J. E., & Bodden, J. L. (1978). An activity group experience for disengaged elderly persons. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 25(4), 325-330. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.25.4.325

Izard, C. E., Hembree, E. A., & Huebner, R. R. (1987). Infants' emotion expressions to acute pain: Developmental change and stability of individual differences. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 105-113. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.23.1.105

Izard, C. E., Huebner, R. R., Risser, D. D., & Dougherty, L. L. (1980). The young infant's ability to produce discrete emotion expressions. Developmental Psychology, 16(2), 132-140. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.16.2.132

Jacques, P. L., Winecoff, A., & Cabeza, R. (2012). Emotion and Aging Linking Neural Mechanisms to Psychological Theory. In J. Armony & P. Vuilleumier (Eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience (pp. 635-661). Retrieved from

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46(8), 819-834. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.46.8.819

Lazarus, R. S., & DeLongis, A. (1983). Psychological stress and coping in aging. American Psychologist, 38(3), 245-254. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.38.3.245

Lynchard, N. A., & Radvansky, G. A. (2012). Age-related perspectives and emotion processing. Psychology And Aging, 27(4), 934-939. doi:10.1037/a0027368

Mather, M. (2012). The emotion paradox in the aging brain. ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 33-49. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06471.x

Mather, M., Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: the positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(10), 496-502. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.005

Phelan, E., Anderson, L., LaCriox, A., & Larson, E. (2004). Older adults' views of "successful aging" -- how do they compare with researchers' definitions?. Journal Of The American Geriatrics Society, 52(2), 211-216. doi:10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52056.x

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rose, M. R. (1991). Evolutionary Biology of Aging. New York: Oxford University Press

Samanez-Larkin, G. R., Robertson, E. R., Mikels, J. A., Carstensen, L. L., & Gotlib, I. H. (2014). Selective attention to emotion in the aging brain. Motivation Science, 1(S), 49-63. doi:10.1037/2333-8113.1.S.49

Sze, J. A., Goodkind, M. S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2012). Aging and emotion recognition: Not just a losing matter. Psychology And Aging, 27(4), 940-950. doi:10.1037/a0029367

Viña, J., Borrás, C., & Miquel, J. (2007). Theories of ageing. IUBMB Life, 59(5), 249–254. doi:10.1080/15216540601178067

Wadensten, B. (2006). An analysis of psychosocial theories of ageing and their relevance to practical gerontological nursing in Sweden. Scandinavian Journal Of Caring Sciences, 20(3), 347-354. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2006.00414.x

External links[edit | edit source]