The Good, the Bad and the Poignant

By Ersner-Hershfield, Hal; Rice, Cara et al. | Aging Today, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad and the Poignant


Ersner-Hershfield, Hal, Rice, Cara, Lindberg, Casey, Carstensen, Laura, Aging Today


From "age-defying" skin cream to long-term care insurance, most people prepare for later life reluctantly and with some trepidation. Although the problems 4 associated with aging are well known, the benefits often catch people by surprise. Interestingly, even the difficulties are cast in a softer light as people gain perspective over the years. A growing body of research on emotion supports this sense of experiencing the world in more complex and positive ways, as people grow older over the lifespan.

In research conducted at California's Stanford University, investigators led by one of the authors of this article," Laura Carstensen, found that emotional functioning improves with age. Paradoxically, it is the knowledge that time is running out that contributes to these gains.

TIME, MOTIVATION, EMOTION

Carstensen's research team is guided by socioemotional selectivity theory (SST), which posits a relationship between one's perspective about time, motivation and emotional experience. A 1999 study found that when people see the future as expansive and their time perspective is open-ended, they place greater focus on knowledge-related goals and information-seeking. However, as time passes and endings approach, these future-oriented activities become less compelling. Limited time perspective focuses people on the present, and this shift tends to heighten the value people place on the most important aspects of life. Thus, the sense that they have only limited time left to complete unfinished business tends to motivate people to pursue emotionally meaningful goals. This shift can occur at any age, but because time perspective is so strongly associated with chronological age, older adults are more affected.

Because SST analysis suggests that older adults place greater emphasis on emotionally meaningful goals, Carstensen and colleagues conducted a study in 2000 to test whether that experience leads to greater emotional satisfaction in elders' everyday lives. Using what is known as an experience-sampling procedure, the researchers asked participants ages 18 to 94 to carry an electronic pager for seven days. Those in the study were paged on random occasions five times a day and filled out an emotion checklist asking about the degree to which they were experiencing each of 11 negative emotions and eight positive emotions.

Results indicated no age differences in the intensity of negative or positive emotion. However, older adults experienced negative affect less frequently and for shorter durations than their younger counterparts. That is, older participants experienced negative emotions just as intensely as younger ones, but less often. Furthermore, when older adults experienced negative emotions, positive ones arose as well. The Stanford researchers termed this co-occurrence of positive and negative emotion poignancy.

Why might this experience of poignancy occur with greater frequency in old age? SST predicts that poignancy arises as a result of a shift in time perspective: As people approach endings, even the most positive experiences can bring a tear to the eye. Such feelings are often a function of endings, and older people, by virtue of their age, naturally face more moments of finality in their lives than younger people do.

Recently, Hal Ersner-Hershfield, another author of this article, and his colleagues at Stanford set out to examine a possible causal link between time perspective and the experience of poignancy. Participants first selected a personally meaningful scenario, such as a walk through one's hometown or a night at a favorite restaurant. Next, participants were involved with an experiment using imagery to help them vividly imagine the experience of being at these locations. Under time-limited conditions, participants were asked to imagine the experience as if it were the last time they would visit the place. They then rated the degree to which they were experiencing the same 19 emotions used in the experience-sampling study. …

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