Photo By: Kathryn Tomaino/ Special to the Town Crier
Psychology professor Robert Levenson, an expert on human emotions, explains how old age is a time of emotional vibrancy to a Morning Forum of Los Altos audience.
Psychology professor Robert Levenson, Ph.D., an expert on human emotion, discussed “How Our Emotional Lives Mature: Changes and New Strengths” at the Morning Forum of Los Altos May 7.
Levenson is director of the Institute for Personality and Social Research and the Clinical Science Program at UC Berkeley, which is studying ways emotions change as people age.
Previously, old age was considered a period of flat emotionality, according to Levenson. The current view is that it is a time of emotional vibrancy, refinement and well-being when close relationships become increasingly important.
Levenson studies emotional reactions to situations and how emotions affect lives. He observes the physiological effects of emotion in faces, voices, large muscles and bodily systems (for example, skin and cardiac and sweat glands).
Emotions, he said, are powerful in human beings. When we experience an emotion such as anger, disgust or sympathy. we begin thinking about ways of dealing with the situation that triggered it.
Emotions are necessary for survival, Levenson said. We react to stimuli and situations with emotions, which alert us to respond to the challenges or opportunities. We can regulate the emotions and adjust responses to meet situational demands. In general, the better we control emotional responses, the greater our sense of well-being and the higher our incomes, he added.
We also recognize and respond to the emotions of others. As we age, our ability to know what others are feeling improves.
“In healthy persons, the capacity to generate emotions doesn’t change from a person’s youth throughout their old age,” he said. “The ability to feel sadness increases as we age. While we experience sadness more strongly in old age, depression rates are lowest and a sense of well-being is highest in old age.”
Levenson noted that the capacity to feel sadness is characteristic of people who are satisfied with their lives. In late life, the ability to feel sadness makes people able to care for others and gives them the ability to be taken care of.
“Older people are better at seeing the good sides of situations,” he said. “These abilities contribute to a sense of well-being.”
Levenson stressed that each person ages differently. Late-life diseases (for example, Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia) affect the ability to generate emotions.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos Methodist Church, 655 Magdelena Ave. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.org.