It is not until their 60s that people reach their peak levels of emotional intelligence, research finds.
At this age, people are generally better at seeing the positive side of stressful situations and empathising with the less fortunate.
Professor Robert Levenson, study co-author, said:
“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others.
Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”
In one study people of different ages were shown video clips with different emotional content — some were sad and disgusting.
Those in their 60s did better than those in their 40s and 20s at focusing on the positive aspects of the clip — they were better at using what psychologists call ‘positive reappraisal’.
Younger people, though, were better at distracting themselves from the clips.
In another study, psychologists tested how physiologically sensitive people of different ages were to the clips.
The results showed that older people reacted more strongly to sadness.
Dr Benjamin Seider, the study’s first author, said:
“In late life, individuals often adopt different perspectives and goals that focus more on close interpersonal relationships.
By doing so, they become increasingly sensitized to sadness because the shared experience of sadness leads to greater intimacy in interpersonal relationships.”
Being sensitive to sadness is actually a good thing, Professor Levenson explained:
“Sadness can be a particularly meaningful and helpful emotion in late life, as we are inevitably confronted with and need to deal with the losses we experience in our own life and with the need to give comfort to others.”
The study’s authors conclude:
“…older adults may be better served by staying socially engaged and using positive reappraisal to deal with stressful challenging situations rather than disconnecting from situations that offer opportunities to enhance quality of life.”
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The study was published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Seider et al., 2011).