Aging and Emotional Preferences

Most of us strive to feel good; this doesn’t necessarily mean we are continually striving after pleasure in a hedonistic sense; rather, our strivings toward feeling good can be described as striving toward feeling a positive affect.

In science, and specifically the field of psychology, the term affect typically refers to the visible manifestation of a given underlying emotional experience by a person. Within the context of the affect valuation theory, the term affect is used even more specifically by including three dimensions that comprise affect (Barrett & Bliss-Moreau, 2009):

  1. Valence – the subjective evaluation of a particular experience as being either positive or negative.
  2. Arousal – refers to the degree of activation of the nervous system, typically ranging from low-high levels of arousal; higher levels of arousal, in this context, refer to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
  3. Motivation – in relation to these other dimensions and the overall theory, this type of motivation is referring to the strength (or intensity) of a person’s desire (or urge) to take action toward or away from a particular experiential state of being.

To return back to the initial idea of striving toward positive affect states of being, researchers Scheibe et al. (2013) further examined the findings regarding affect valuation theory, particularly focusing on the critical point that the nature of what is a “positive” versus a “negative” affective experience is subjective and, thus, highly dependent upon the individual’s preference.

However, previous research had already indicated that the dimension of arousal is one way of differentiating the differences within individuals’ ideal positive or negative affective state. For example, some individuals sought positive affective states that incorporated low arousal, such as feelings of calm, peace, and so on, while others preferred ideal positive states that included high arousal levels, such as excitement and enthusiasm.

While high or low arousal offers some clarity for distinguishing between differences in a person’s ideal positive state, the results of Scheibe et al.’s research (2013) provided further support for the notion that aging is associated differences in the type of ideal positive states (low or high arousal) preferred by the individual. For example, their research found that older adults showed a greater preference for low arousal positive affective states (LAP) compared to that of high arousal positive states (HAP). Furthermore, while  this preference for LAP versus HAP was present in all three of the study’s older age groups (ages, 40-59, 60-79, and over 80), it was most pronounced in the oldest age group of participants (over the age of 80). In contrast, the age group for younger adults (less than age 40), did not reveal a preference for one state over the other and instead indicated valuing low and high arousal positive affective states equally.

While these findings suggest that a gradual shift in preference for the type of positive affective state does change with the natural course of aging, it also shows this change is a relative one; that is, even those in the oldest age group still reported a motivation for high arousal affective states.

Therefore, our ideal positive affect seems to include both low- and high-arousal states. The degree to which we prefer one over the other may vary between individuals, but the overarching trend is appears to be a gradual shift away from higher-arousal states, such as excitement and zeal, toward a greater emphasis on and appreciation of lower-arousal states that provide us a sense of peace and tranquility. Nevertheless, there is a need for both types of experiential states, and our motivation to attain these states through experience will continue to propel our actions, though the course of time may guide more toward one side.

Reference

Scheibe, S., English, T., Tsai, J. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (2013). Striving to feel good: Ideal affect, actual affect, and their correspondence across adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 28(1), 160–171. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030561

Barrett L. F., Bliss-Moreau E. (2009). Affect as a psychological primitive. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 41, 167–218. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)00404-8

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