According to the U.S. Census, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to double from 46 million to more than 98 million by 2060, resulting in a cohort that represent 24% of the general population (2015). While most empirical research has focused on age-related decline, disability, and mortality, few focus on the promotion of healthy aging.
One aspect essential to healthy aging is emotional wellness. The positivity effect, an attentional preference for positive information as well as avoidance of negative information, is an established pattern found in older adults (Mather & Carstensen, 2005). However, because there is continued debate about the actual mechanisms involved in this processing bias, guidance on specific practical implications has been limited.
The following studies examine the distinct mechanisms proposed in current theories as the driving cause behind the positivity effect in older adults. Two such theories include the socioemotional selectivity theory (SST; Carstensen, Isaacowitz & Charles, 1999), that suggests adults consciously emphasize goals of well-being and emotional stability through controlled cognitive strategies in attention, and the dynamic integration theory (DIT; Labouvie-Vief, 2003), which suggests that older adults’ ability to process affective information can be compromised as age-related limitations in cognitive resources may cause older adults to have difficulties in managing the cognitive-affective complexity.
A better understanding of why the positivity effect occurs could give clinicians more accurate strategies and techniques in promoting emotional well-being in older adults.
In addition to reviewing the following research summaries, psychologists are encouraged to explore the literature more completely to determine what may be useful to them in practice.