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Contentment in the Winter of Life

With the clarity of age, we are better able to master our emotions


(The following is an excerpt from Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life)

The relationship between age and contentment is well documented, though scientists are still seeking to better understand the reasons for that link. Long years of life experience and reflection play a role in late-life contentment, as do shifts in our perspective and changes in the aging brain that have a calming effect on emotions.

Reflection and the Maturing of Vision

With age, we tend to develop a taste for reflection, which is a prerequisite for contentment. Long years bring a rich store of experiences from which we can learn the art of living, so long as our minds, eyes, and ears stay open, and our hearts remain teachable. Reflection enables us to see more clearly and deeply into life as it is, rather than through the filter of our unexamined opinions, desires and expectations about how things should be.

From the perspective afforded by many decades, we recognize that the human journey is far more complex, paradoxical and unpredictable than it may once have seemed. We learn that there are multiple ways of viewing situations, that we do not always know what is right or best and that actions may not always have the desired effect. Where it may once have seemed fairly simple to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong, with age we learn to accept the many shades of gray and the wide array of paradoxes and puzzlements that are the stuff of life.

Such postoperational thinking is also characterized by an integration of thinking and feeling as well as the ability to stand back and view situations with greater clarity and equanimity. As we move beyond oversimplified, either/or vision and its inevitable companion, certainty, we become less reactive and impulsive and more discerning about when to act and when to “let be.”

My mother grew more and more content as she aged, and she knew a lot about letting be. (She was also gusty and could be quite a force.) About two years before her death, I was visiting one day and asked how she was doing. Instead of her usual response (“wonderful” or “really good”), she said, “Pretty good.” When I urged her to tell me more, she said, “There are some things going on around here that I don’t much like.”

When I asked her what things, she paused and said with a shy smile, “I don’t remember.” We both laughed, and then I asked what she did when there was something going on that she didn’t like. She thought for a moment and said, “Well, first I see if there’s anything I can do about it, and if there is, I do it. And if there isn’t, I let it go.” Years later, I realized she was passing on a wonderful recipe for contentment.

Emotional Climate of Later Life

Despite the inevitable losses of late life, emotions like sadness and anger become more muted and less frequent with age, while the capacity for joy, delight, wonder and gratitude often deepens. One reason for this shift is the tendency for the emotion-processing centers of the brain (the amygdalae) to become less reactive with age, especially to negative emotional stimuli.

In one study, for example, psychologist Mara Mather and her associates showed younger and older adults both negative and positive imagery and noticed significant differences between the two age groups, in terms of brain activity, emotional experience and recall. Brain scans revealed that elders’ amygdalae were less reactive to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. In addition, older participants reported fewer negative emotions during the process and were more likely to recall positive imagery afterward, compared to younger participants.

In later life, we develop what some gerontologists call emotional mastery: the ability to recognize and regulate our emotions and to express them in nonharming ways. Our responses to other people and to life events tend to mature and become more adaptive, flexible and kind.

With age, for example, we are less likely under stress to blame or turn against others and more likely to try to understand and find meaning or humor in the situation. Summarizing a number of studies with adults over 65, psychology professor Dacher Keltner notes, “With age, people can more readily move in and out of different emotional states . . . [and] report experiencing more freedom and control during emotional experiences.”

Emotional mastery begins with the acknowledgment of our feelings, even, and perhaps especially, the less pleasant ones. For it is the distressing emotions that have the greatest potential for teaching us what we need to understand. Over time, observing and being honest with ourselves about our feelings brings greater awareness of the patterns of thought and feeling that lead to contentment (like forgiveness and humor) and those that usually lead to misery (like self-righteousness and impatience).

If we allow our emotional “guests” to be our teachers and our guides, as the Sufi poet Rumi suggests in the poem, “The Guest House,” we become (wiser) about which feelings to acknowledge and let go, and which to express, and how and to whom … Age and practice can help us grow more discerning about when and how to express emotions in ways that are authentic, appropriate, and minimally harmful to others — and ourselves.

By Susan Stewart
A Professor of Psychology for over thirty years (now emerita), a retired therapist, and a grandmother, Susan Stewart, PhD, is passionate about sharing the gifts of later life in a culture that mistakenly equates old age with debilitating decline. Her book, Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life, was published in October. Susan teaches for the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at Sonoma Sate University and is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and a workshop facilitator. She is also a singer and a cellist and loves to dance.  

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