Far more attention has been paid to emotion regulation in childhood than in adulthood and old age. However, a growing body of empirical research suggests that the emotion domain is largely spared from deleterious processes associated with aging and points instead to developmental gains in later life. By applying tenets from socioemotional selectivity theory, we attempt to explain the observed gains in terms of motivation. We argue that age is associated with increasing motivation to derive emotional meaning from life and decreasing motivation to expand one's horizons. These changes lead to age differences in social and environmental choices (consistent with antecedent emotion regulation), coping (consistent with response-focused regulation), and cognitive processing of positive and negative information (consistent with goal-directed attention and memory). Broader implications for life-span development are discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Antonucci, T. C., & Jackson, J. S. (1987). Social support, interpersonal efficacy, and health. In Handbook of clinical gerontology (pp. 291-311). New York: Pergamon.
Baltes, P. B. (1987). Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23, 611-626.
Baltes, P. B. (1997). On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny: Selection, optimization, and compensation as foundation of developmental theory. American Psychologist, 52, 366-380.
Baltes, M. M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2002). The process of successful aging. In U. Staudinger & U. Lindenberger (Eds.), Understanding human development: dialogues with life-span psychology (pp. 81-104). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic.
Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanisms in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.
Banham, K. M. (1951). Senescence and the emotions: A genetic theory. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 78, 175-183.
Blanchard-Fields, F., Chen, Y., & Norris, L. (1997). Everyday problem solving across the adult life span: Influence of domain specificity and cognitive appraisal. Psychology and Aging, 12, 684-693.
Blanchard-Fields, F., Jahnke, H. C., & Camp, C. (1995). Age differences in problem-solving style: The role of emotional salience. Psychology and Aging, 10, 173-180.
Bolin, R., & Klenow, D. J. (1982-1983). Response of the elderly in disaster: An age-stratified analysis. Journal of Aging and Human Development, 16, 283-296.
Brandtstädter, J., & Renner, G. (1990). Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: Explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology and Aging, 5, 58-67.
Carstensen, L. L. (1986). Social support among the elderly: Limitations of behavioral interventions. The Behavior Therapist, 6, 111-113.
Carstensen, L. L. (1992). Social and emotional patterns in adulthood: Support for socioemotional selectivity theory. Psychology and Aging, 7, 331-338.
Carstensen, L. L. (1993). Motivation for social contact across the life span: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. In J. E. Jacobs (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation: 1992, developmental perspectives on motivation (Vol. 40, pp. 209-254). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Carstensen, L. L., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Emotion in the second half of life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7, 144-149.
Carstensen, L. L., & Fredrickson, B. (1998). Influence of HIV status and age on cognitive representations of others. Health Psychology, 17, 494-503.
Carstensen, L. L., Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1995). Emotional behavior in long-term-marriage. Psychology and Aging, 10, 140-149.
Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D. M., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181.
Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Mayr, U., & Nesselroade, J. (2000). Emotion experience in the daily lives of older and younger adults. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1-12.
Carstensen, L. L., & Turk-Charles, S. (1994). The salience of emotion across the adult life span. Psychology and Aging, 9, 259-264.
Chapell, N. L., & Badger, M. (1989). Social isolation and well-being. The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 44, S169-S176.
Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (1999). The role of time in the setting of social goals across the life span. In F. Blanchard-Fields & T. Hess (Eds.), Social cognition and aging (pp. 319-342). New York: Academic Press.
Charles, S. T., Mather, M., & Carstensen L. L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: The forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 32, 310-324.
Charles, S. T., Reynolds, C. A., & Gatz, M. (2001). Age-related differences and change in positive and negative affect over 23 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 136-151.
Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310-357.
Cumming, E., & Henry, W. H. (1961). Growing old: The process of disengagementz. New York: Basic Books.
Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (1999). Personality and subjective well-being. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 213-229). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Diener, E., & Suh, E. (1997). Measuring quality of life: Economic, social, and subjective indicators. Social Indicators Research, 40, 189-216.
Field, D. (1981). Retrospective reports by healthy intelligent elderly people of personal events of their adult lives. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 4, 77-97.
Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Pimley, D., & Novacek, J. (1987). Age differences in stress and coping processes. Psychology and Aging, 2, 171-184.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (1990). Choosing social partners: How age and anticipated endings make people more selective. Psychology and Aging, 5, 335-347.
Fung, H. H., & Carstensen, L. L. (in press). Perceived endings increase motivation to pursue emotionally meaningful goals. Psychology and Aging.
Fung, H. H., & Carstensen, L. L. (in press). Sending memorable messages to the old: Age differences in preferences and memory for emotionally meaningful advertisements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Fung, H. H., Carstensen, L. L., & Lang, F. R. (2001). Age-related patterns of social relationships among African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans: Implications for socioemotional selectivity across the life span. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 52, 185-206.
Fung, H. H., Carstensen, L. L., & Lutz, M. A. (1999). Influence of time on social preferences: Implications for life-span development. Psychology and Aging, 14, 595-604.
Fung, H. H., Lai, P., & Ng, R. (2001). Age differences in social preferences among Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese: The role of perceived Time. Psychology and Aging, 16, 351-356.
Fung, H. H., Mcewan, A., & Kuiken, D. (2001, November). Time perspective, emotion-focused coping and spirituality. In B. G. Knight (Chair), Emotion and aging: Social cognitive approaches. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Chicago, IL.
George, L. K., Blazer, D. F., Winfield-Laird, I., Leaf, P. J., & Fischback, R. L. (1988). Psychiatric disorders and mental health service use in later life: Evidence from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program. In J. Brody & G. Maddox (Eds.), Epidemiology and Aging (pp. 189-219). New York: Springer.
Gould, O. N., & Dixon, R. A. (1993). How we spent our vacation: Collaborative storytelling by young and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 6, 93-99.
Gross, J. J., Carstensen, L. C., Pasupathi, M., Tsai, J., Götestam-Skorpen, K., & Hsu, A. Y. C. (1997). Emotion and aging: Experience, expression, and control. Psychology and Aging, 12, 590-599.
Hasher, J., Zacks, R. T., & May, C. P. (1999). Inhibitory control, circadian arousal, and age. In D. Gopher & A. Koriat (Eds.), Attention and performance XVII. Cognitive regulation of performance: Interaction of theory and application (pp. 653-675). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hashtroudi, S., Johnson, M. K., & Chrosniak, L. D. (1990). Aging and qualitative characteristics of memories for perceived and imagined complex events. Psychology and Aging, 5, 119-126.
Herzog, A. R., & Rodgers, W. L. (1981). Age and satisfaction: Data from several large surveys. Research on Aging, 3, 142-165.
Heckhausen, J., & Kreuger, J. (1993). Developmental expectations for the self and most other people: Age grading in three functions of social comparison. Developmental Psychology, 29, 539-548.
Heckhausen, J., & Schulz, R. (1995). A life-span theory of control. Psychological Review, 102, 284-304.
Hess, T. M., Bolstad, C. A., Woodburn, S. M., & Auman, C. (1999). Trait diagnosticity versus behavior consistency as determinants of impression change in adulthood. Psychology and Aging, 14, 77-89.
Hess, T. M., & Pullen, S. M. (1994). Adult age difference in informational biases during impression formation. Psychology and Aging, 9, 237-250.
Isaacowitz, D. M., Charles, S. T., & Carstensen, L. L. (2000). Emotion and cognition. In F. I. M. Craik & T. A. Salthouse (Eds.), Handbook of aging and cognition (2nd ed., pp. 593-632). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Isaacowitz, D. M., Smith, T., & Carstensen, L. L. (in press). Socioemotional selectivity in trauma survivors in old age. Ageing International.
Jennings, J. M., & Jacoby, L. L. (1993). Automatic versus intentional uses of memory: Aging, attention, and control. Psychology and Aging, 8, 283-293.
Johnson, M. K., & Sherman, S. J. (1990). Constructing and reconstructing the past and the future in the present. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (pp. 482-526). New York: Guilford.
Kausar, R., & Akram, M. (1999). Cognitive appraisal and coping of patients with terminal versus nonterminal diseases. Journal of Behavioral Science, 9, 13-28.
Kennedy, Q., Fung, H., & Carstensen, L. L. (2001). Aging, time estimation and emotion: A multidisciplinary exploration. In S. H. McFadden & R. C. Atchley (Eds.), Aging and the meaning of time (pp. 51-74). New York: Springer.
Kochanska, G., Murray, K., & Harlan, E. (2000). Effortful control in early childhood: Continuity and change, antecedents, and implications for social development. Developmental Psychology, 36, 220-232.
Labouvie-Vief, G., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (1982). Cognitive ageing and psychological growth. Ageing and Society, 2, 183-209.
Labouvie-Vief, G., DeVoe, M., & Bulka, D. (1989). Speaking about feelings: Conceptions of emotion across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 4, 425-437.
Lang, F. R. (2000). Endings and continuity of social relationships: Maximizing intrinsic benefits within personal networks when feeling near to death? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 157-184.
Lang, F. R., & Carstensen, L. L. (1994). Close emotional relationships in late life: Further support for proactive aging in the social domain. Psychology and Aging, 9, 315-324.
Lang, F. R., & Carstensen, L. L. (2002). Time counts: Future time perspective, goals, and social relationships. Psychology and Aging, 17, 125-139.
Lang, F. R., Staudinger, U. M., & Carstensen, L. L. (1998). Perspectives on socioemotional selectivity in late life: How personality and social context do (and do not) make a difference. The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 53, P21-P30.
Larson, J. T., McGraw, A. P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2001). Can people feel happy and sad at the same time?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 684-696.
Lawton, M. P., Kleban, M. H., Rajagopal, D., & Dean, J. (1992). The dimensions of affective experience in three age groups. Psychology and Aging, 7, 171-184.
Lee, D. J., & Markides, K. S. (1990). Activity and mortality among aged persons over an eight-year period. The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 45, S39-S42.
Levenson, R. W., Carstensen, L. L., & Friesen, W. V., & Ekman, P. (1991). Emotion, physiology, and expression in old age. Psychology and Aging, 6, 28-35.
Levenson, R. W., Carstensen, L. L., & Gottman, J. M. (1994). Influence of age and gender on affect, physiology, and their interrelations: A study of long-term marriages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 56-68.
Levine, L. J., & Bluck, S. (1997). Experienced and remembered emotional intensity in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 12, 514-523.
Lowenthal, M., & Haven, C. (1968). Interaction and adaptation: Intimacy as a critical variable. In B. L. Neugarten (Ed.), Middle age and aging: A reader in social psychology (pp. 390-400). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (in press). Aging and attentional biases for emotional faces. Psychological Science.
Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606.
Mroczek, D. K., & Kolarz, C. M. (1998). The effect of age on positive and negative affect: A developmental perspective on happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1333-1349.
Palmore, E. (1981). Social patterns in normal aging: Findings from the Duke Longitudinal Study. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Pasupathi, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (in press). Age and emotional experience during mutual reminiscing. Psychology and Aging.
Powers, C. B., Wisocki, P. A., & Whitbourne, S. K. (1992). Age differences and correlates of worrying in youth and elderly adults. The Gerontologist, 32, 82-88.
Quackenbush, S. W., & Barnett, M. A. (2001). Recollection and evaluation of critical experiences in moral development: A cross-sectional examination. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23, 55-64.
Regier, D. A., Boyd, H. J., Burke, J. D., Rae, D. S., Myers, J. K., Kramer, M., et al. (1988). One-month prevalence of mental disorders in the United States. Archives of General Psychiatry, 45, 977-986.
Roberts, G. (1999). Age effects and health appraisal: A meta-analysis. The Journals of Gerontology, 54, S24-S30.
Rook, K. S. (2001). Emotional health and positive versus negative social exchanges: A daily dairy analysis. Applied Developmental Science, 5, 86-97.
Rothbart, M. K. (1994). Emotional development: Changes in reactivity and self-regulation. In P. Ekman & R. J. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 369-372). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rothbart, M. K., Ahadi, S. A., & Evans, D. E. (2000). Temperament and personality: Origins and outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 122-135.
Schieman, S. (1999). Age and anger. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 40, 273-289.
Schulkind, M. D., Hennis, L. K., & Rubin, D. C. (1999). Music, emotion and autobiographical memory: They're playing your song. Memory and Cognition, 27, 948-955.
Shields, A., Ryan, R. M., & Cicchetti, D. (2001). Narrative representations of caregivers and emotion dysregulation as predictors of maltreated children's rejection by peers. Developmental Psychology, 37, 321-337.
Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (1997). Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 123, 133-167.
Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., Reed, G. M., Bower, J. E., & Gruenewald, T. L. (2000). Psychological resources, positive illusions, and health. American Psychologist, 55, 99-109.
Weissman, M., Leaf, P. J., Bruce, M. L., & Florio, L. P. (1988). The epidemiology of dysthymia in five communities: Rates, risks, comorbidity and treatment. American Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 815-819.
Wohlwill, J. F. (1970). The age variable in psychological research Psychological Review, 77, 49-6
Zajonc, R. B. (1984). On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 39, 117-123.
About this article
Cite this article
Carstensen, L.L., Fung, H.H. & Charles, S.T. Socioemotional Selectivity Theory and the Regulation of Emotion in the Second Half of Life. Motivation and Emotion 27, 103–123 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1024569803230
- life-span development
- emotion regulation