I love reading about new studies on human nature. According to a new article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the way people read emotions changes as they age.
The paper is called ‘Emotion Sensitivity Across the Lifespan: Mapping Clinical Risk Periods to Sensitivity to Facial Emotion Intensity’. The research was carried out by McLean Hospital, affiliated to the Harvard Medical School.
The lead researcher Lauren Rutter, from the hospital's Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology, found that as people get older, they get less sensitive to other people’s anger but they do not lose their sensitivity to other people’s happiness.
In short the older you get the less likely you are to notice if someone is annoyed, but you are still likely to notice people’s joy. To me, that says that the world starts to at least appear like a happier place as you age. Given that I’m no spring chicken, I think that’s great news!
Dr Rutter and her team in Massachusetts created a digital test of emotional sensitivity, and had nearly 10,000 men and women between the ages of 10 and 85 tested. The test was designed to help the researchers measure how much each participant could detect subtle differences in facial cues that showed fear, anger, or happiness, as well as how people of different ages reacted to those facial cues.
Young people and old people experience anger differently
The study found that the everyday experiences of an adolescent is different from a middle-aged or older person, but the researchers wanted to understand how these experiences might be linked with differences in basic emotional understanding.
“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” Dr Rutter said. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”
That could explain why teenagers are so distressed by bullying – they are acutely aware of other people’s anger.
However the research discovered that as people age, their sensitivity to the facial cues for fear and anger decreases, while their ability to detect the cues for happiness stays the same.
“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,” said another author Dr Laura Germine. “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook.”
The over-sixties are the happiest
The Association for Psychological Science (APS) said there was decades of research supporting findings that older adults consistently report feeling more positive about their everyday lives than younger adults (especially people aged over 60 years – happiness peaks in your sixties).
The Association for Psychological science shared a theory that older adults are more likely to look at the positive side of a situation, because they recognize they have limited time left in life and would rather optimize happiness than focus on the negative. In short they are glass half-full, not half-empty people.
The researchers behind this new study will next look at how their work might be related to different aspects of mental health, like anxiety. They also plan to look into how emotional sensitivity cues might affect mental health after experiencing a trauma.
How you read people influences how you see the world
This new research shows that the way you experience emotions and interpret facial expressions can play a factor in how you experience the world. And as you get older, it’s likely you’ll experience more happiness than negative emotions.
Hey, I’ve got a brilliant idea. We do not need to wait until we get older to start focusing on the positive not the negative.
Regardless of your age, why not decide today that you will take on board other people’s happiness but you plan to shrug off other people’s anger, foul moods and irritability?
Please do not get me wrong. I am not encouraging you to be insensitive. If you live with someone and they appear angry you must endeavour to find out why and try to support them. If you have inadvertently injured a friend or family member you can’t just ignore their anger. You need to investigate, find out what is wrong and try to fix it.
Blow off the world’s anger
What I am saying is that you are allowed to brush off the rest of the world’s anger. If you encounter someone suffering a fit of road rage, don’t let it get you down. Just remember they have their own problems and then let it go – let it be like water on a duck’s back. If a waitress is rude to you, forget about it! If your neighbour doesn’t smile and wave, forgive her.
Have you noticed that too often when people are slighted they tell the story of the injustice again and again and again? “Oh, she was so rude to me,” they complain. “That woman was really nasty and treated me like dirt.” It is like they are marinating in the negativity. They are clearly hurt by the experience but by dwelling on the negativity they are only reinforcing their pain, and letting it all fester. The wound cannot heal.
Be like the wise older people who have simply lost their ‘sensitivity’ to anger and rage, but have maintained their sensitivity to joy.
If someone hurts you, do not retaliate, do not pick at the ‘scab’ or the hurt. Instead do something incredibly radical – forgive and forget and get on with being joyous.
It is the season of forgiveness
It is now the season of Lent and we are about to celebrate the ultimate act of forgiveness – Easter, when God forgave humanity. I am sure you won’t argue that humanity needs to be forgiven for a great deal – just look at the state of this world.
So if God can forgive you and me, then you should spend every day forgiving and releasing your anger – let it fly away like a butterfly, and then you can get back to being super sensitive to happiness. You can notice a baby smiling at its older brother or sister who is playing games nearby. You can watch friends hug each other when meeting for lunch. You can look at rainbows and sunsets.
Never forget, the most wasted of all days is the one without laughter.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.