Theories of emotional–motivational life-span development propose normative shifts in emotional goals and strategies across adulthood. Socioemotional selectivity theory, for example, holds that anticipated endings such as the sense that lifetime is running out give primacy to enhancing emotionally gratifying experiences in the moment as opposed to maximizing future rewards (Carstensen, 2006
). This activates mood-enhancement goals and reduces the willingness to accept purely negative experiences for the sake of long-term goals. Aging is naturally associated with endings; therefore, the theory predicts motivational changes with age. However, the same motivational changes can also occur in contexts other than aging that are associated with a limited time perspective (Fung, Carstensen, & Lutz, 1999
Whereas socioemotional selectivity theory emphasizes selective processes underlying improved affect trajectories, other theories conceptualize emotional–motivational changes as compensatory means to adapt to declining resources with age. Dynamic integration theory poses that diminishing cognitive capacities associated with age make it more difficult to integrate and accept negative feelings, and therefore, older adults increasingly favor affect optimization over affect complexity (Labouvie-Vief, 2003
). The life-span theory of control holds that individuals’ capacity to control their environment and achieve their developmental goals declines in older adulthood (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995
; Heckhausen, Wrosch, & Schulz, in press
). Consequently, older adults increasingly use secondary control strategies, such as emotion regulation, aimed at changing the self in order to adjust to a given situation, rather than using primary control strategies that change the situation itself.
Adding to selective and compensatory changes in emotional preferences and strategies, it is possible that learning and practice effects make older adults more competent at emotional regulation (Blanchard-Fields, 2007
; Scheibe & Blanchard-Fields, 2009
). Specifically, the long-term experience and practice in dealing with emotional situations should lead older adults to acquire situational, strategic, and procedural knowledge about emotional processes that increase their effectiveness in handling emotional situations. For example, with age, people may become more knowledgeable about the emotional effects of future events (Scheibe, Mata, & Carstensen, 2009
), become better at tailoring their emotion–regulatory strategy to contextual demands (Blanchard-Fields, 2007
), and emotion–regulatory processes become less effortful (Scheibe & Blanchard-Fields). In sum, consistent with the model of selection, optimization, and compensation (Baltes & Baltes, 1990
), selective changes in emotional preferences, compensatory efforts to adapt to declining cognitive and control capacities, and the optimization of emotional behavior through lifelong learning and practice can all be expected to drive changes in emotional experience and regulation across adulthood.
Finally, some researchers have suggested that improved affect in later adulthood is a serendipitous by-product of biological decline (Cacioppo, Berntson, Bechara, Tranel, & Hawkley, in press
). For instance, structural decline in emotion-sensitive brain areas could selectively impair the processing of negative stimuli, which protects against threats to well-being. In the same vein, structural degradation and functional slowing of the autonomic system may diminish physiological arousal after exposure to emotional stimuli, thereby reducing the impact of negative events (Cacioppo, Berntson, Klein, & Poehlmann, 1998
). However, once an autonomic reaction is elicited, the same mechanism can prolong physiological reactions, thereby increasing the duration of negative emotional states (Charles & Piazza, 2009
; Otte et al., 2005
). In the next section, we investigate empirical evidence relevant to these theoretical assumptions. As will become evident, not all these explanations are equally supported empirically.