Brief Review: Age Differences in Social, Emotional, and Transformational Resources for Resilience

We all know that humans generally tend to need and value different things as we age, from adolescence through to young, middle, and late adulthood. Recent studies explore the factors that are most important, in each of these age groups, for maintaining resilient well-being. They have something in common, but they also differ in interesting, nuanced ways. Read more about these key resources for resilience throughout the lifespan in this brief review.

Author: Tyler Phillips, Research Psychologist and Lead Content Specialist

Throughout our entire lifespan, we will always rely on our fundamental, organic capacity to adapt, overcome, and learn – in other words, on our resilience. Because it is a dynamic capacity, the things that place challenges and pressures on it (stressors) and the things that support and boost it (adaptive behaviors and mental/emotional states) change in their influence from moment to moment and environment to environment. These shifting factors can be quite unique between individuals, no matter how similar they are on demographic characteristics (like gender, country of residence, and income brackets) or shared circumstances (like working at the same organization, or living in the same neighborhood). 

Nonetheless, there are still very often patterns that emerge for a particular commonality between people. Patterns are present, for example, among people who share an age range. This makes sense in developmental psychology since, generally speaking, the brain-body system goes through different phases of development where certain broad needs and orientations take center stage – while others step behind the scenes after they have been met, or wait in the wings until it is their turn to come to the fore. A brief review of recent studies investigating age-related factors that affect resilience shows, interestingly, that emotional and social resources are in the floodlights. These appear to be quite important across the different stages of human development – although how we think about, process, and frame those needs and resources differs. Transforming how we think about these needs and resources, in other words, seems to be a pivotal piece of the pattern.   

Let’s begin with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. One recent study looked at how the use of three different styles of coping with stress tended to affect young people’s well-being and resilience. ‘Young people’ in this study comprised those between 14- and 30-years-old. It appears that two coping styles protected these emerging adults from the negative effects of stress. These are ‘meaning-focused coping’ (i.e., trying to reframe the value or significance of what’s happening – for example, by deciding to see that a rejection is rather a redirection), and seeking social support (i.e. getting support in the form of emotional bonding and information sharing with others, especially peers). Interestingly, ‘problem-focused coping’ (i.e., intentional planning for action-taking to solve problems) was not protective of their well-being in the same way in this study. 

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, problem-focused coping did grow in strength with age, meaning that young adults tended to use it more often than adolescents. Secondly, development scientists position problem-focused coping as an essential part of becoming an adult, because a teenager must develop independence in the ability to think things through and carry out action-plans on their own, without the help of their parents. We might therefore expect it to emerge as essential for their resilience, or abilities to adapt, in approaching adult life. However, the authors of this study (conducted in Germany) note that for this age group, problem-focused coping is very intimately tied with the schooling system (at least in that nation, if not applying more globally). The development of this style of thinking about challenges tends to be focused primarily on mastering schooling tests and assignments, and less so on helping them navigate life (and its stresses) outside the school walls. So, problem-focused coping does remain an important skill to develop. Yet, it seems that the ability to connect supportively with others, and to transform thinking to help regulate emotions, is what more strongly enables resilience when teenagers mature into young adults. 

The transition during middle adulthood also reveals interesting patterns with social, emotional, and transformative resources. One recent study looked at different life events, pressures, and orientations between people in ‘early’ versus ‘late’ middle adulthood to see what emerged as most important for resilience and well-being. For people in early middle-age (defined in this study as between 45- and 60-years old), the major source of stress tended to be negative experiences at work. On the other hand, the biggest contributor to their sense of life satisfaction was found to be an awareness of future opportunities. The ‘awareness’ part here seems to indicate the importance of transformational resources (mindsets and outlooks). 

Notably, challenges at work – as well as the envisioning of how to approach those future opportunities – do seem to rely heavily on a problem-solving capacity. The authors also note that the level of education among these adults had a small but significant predictive influence on their resilience and life satisfaction. It is argued that tertiary education helps to prepare adults to keep learning, so that they may better manage the more complex and nuanced challenges of middle and late adulthood. This is why it contributes to adaptive well-being. It also indicates that the problem-solving brain is essential but, once again, when emotional resources (like optimism and enthusiasm) are used to move a person forward in early middle-age (with a future-opportunities orientation), well-being appears to be most protected, and resilience most optimized. 

Pivoting into late middle-age (defined in this study as between 60- and 75-years-old), there is a significant shift in what is important. In contrast to work, these adults experienced health-related problems as the biggest stressor to their senses of well-being. As a person moves through this age range, there is also an increase in the number of loved ones lost to death, and so the awareness of the ‘finitude’ of life, or of encroaching mortality, becomes the larger matter to confront. In contrast to early middle-adults, the life satisfaction of late middle-adults appears to be most enabled by a sense of growth and purpose. By looking back on their lives – evaluating how they’ve managed challenges, what they’ve learnt in the process, and how these experiences have shaped who they are – these late middle-adults secure their well-being. The resilient, transformational orientation moves from a positive focus on “what am I going to do in the future?” to one on “what have I done in the past?”.   

These resilience-enabling factors are essential at even later ages. Other developmental scientists say that the ‘late middle-age' period in this second study has overlaps with the ‘young old’ age range (i.e., being in early late-adulthood). A third recent study used brain imaging to look at social and emotional processing in these 'young elders' (where the average age was 68-years-old). Their study confirmed a few things already observed: (1) that cognitive abilities (problem-solving powers) tend to be lower for these adults, which is a natural part of the aging process, and (2) that these adults tend to hold social and emotional interactions in higher priority than other wants. In addition, compared to young adults (averaging 25-years-old), these older adults tended to experience a greater degree of positive emotions while observing emotionally ‘neutral’ scenes. 

The presence of positive feelings is a particularly important resource for older adults. This study also observed “emotional inertia” happening in this group, but not so much in the younger adults. Emotional inertia refers to a carry-over effect where people still feel or are engaged with the emotions (especially negative ones) elicited by an experience that is now over. In this study, the emotional stimuli took the form of videos in which people were suffering in some way. Older adults who viewed these videos had more trouble deactivating their affective empathy (i.e. their ability to feel what was going on in the videos) after the videos were finished. Taking it further, the study established that the neural processes involved in emotional inertia, in these older adults, are also involved in rumination and negative thought patterns, mental states which are associated with a higher risk for anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease. 

It appears that recovering from emotional inertia is essential to preserving the psychological resilience of older adults. This resembles quite closely the process of recovering from stress more generally. When encountering a stressor, a resilient person will quickly return to a baseline relaxed physiological state after it is taken care of – instead of remaining in a stressed (fight-or-flight) state. A resilient person, in other words, has low ‘stress inertia’. When it comes to enhancing the ‘stress inertia’ or resilience of adults in their later years, what emerges as very important is boosting the presence of positive emotions – and boosting the return to presence itself, through the transformative practice of mindfulness. Also, given that loneliness tends to be a common experience for older adults (hence they highly value social-emotional interactions), and given that the negative emotions elicited in this study were empathetic ones (to do with what other people are experiencing), it seems that maintaining connectedness with others might be just as important. 

What all of these studies illustrate is that our emotion-influenced perspectives on life, on the stressors we encounter, and on our abilities to manage them is crucial for resilient adaptation as we develop throughout life. This development doesn’t happen in isolation; we are always in need of connection with and support from one another as we move, and in order to grow. Without these ingredients, the problem-solving brain may be under-equipped, at each stage, to help us navigate our way through life’s challenges – whether or not these challenges are due to our age phases. In one sense, age is just a number, but in another sense, the number carries an important nuance to our needs and resources for making our way adaptively through life.   

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