Emotional Intelligence in Seniors

Studies show that getting older can improve your emotional intelligence. Seniors feel fulfilled by focusing on the positive and valuing their relationships.
Emotional Intelligence in Seniors
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Recent studies show that, on average, senior citizens have a high emotional intelligence. They value their relationships and tend to them. Seniors know how to appreciate the present moment. They adjust their emotions to match what’s going on around them so that they can enjoy every moment to the fullest. Seniors have a relaxed and optimistic perspective.

The findings of this study from the University of Texas and the University of California, Berkeley might surprise you. These days, we tend to have a pretty negative view of seniors and the aging process. We associate getting older with physical decline and diminished cognitive abilities. When we think of aging, we inevitably think of unhappiness, low motivation, and social/emotional isolation. In other words, we think of loss.

“At dusk and sunset, day and life get older and open up spaces for everything that has made you happy one day or an entire life.” [translation]


Experience teaches you to manage your emotions

Reaching this stage of life in good health is obviously important to be able to face aging with optimism. The fewer the limitations, the more possibilities and freedom you’ll have. Personality and circumstances also come into play, of course. It’s also fairly obvious that the attitude you face each day with will depend a lot on how you have lived your life so far and what opportunities you’ve had.

What these studies bring to light is that people’s ability to deal with their emotions and recognize other’s emotions significantly improves, on average, after the age of 60.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s emotional intelligence improves over time. It means that experience helps most people learn to manage their emotions. With time and experience, they’re able to prioritize their relationships with others.

Happy senior woman on the beach.

Emotional intelligence in seniors

Being a senior or being a person over 60 isn’t synonymous with loneliness, dissatisfaction, and decline. It isn’t, nor has it been for more than a decade. Life expectancy is reaching 80 years old, which means that being 60 is practically like being young again. When you reach the age of 70, you’re in a stage of mature repose. With life expectancy this high, we see seniors who are more active than ever.

Seniors these days participate in numerous activities in their communities. They travel, hang out with their friends, and take care of their grandchildren. They’re a source of constant and almost indispensable support for their children. Many seniors also suffer from physical ailments or the loss of loved ones. However, most seniors demonstrate very sophisticated emotional skills.

How do they do it? They have to deal with their physical decline, health problems, money, and social issues… So how are seniors able to maintain such a high level of emotional well-being? The Journal of Gerontology from Oxford University explains the following:

Theories that explain the increase in emotional intelligence in older adults

Here are some of the hypotheses that could explain the feeling of fulfillment we see in many older adults:

Socioemotional selectivity

  • Emotional intelligence in older adults can be explained by the theory of socioemotional selectivity. There comes a moment when you realize that your life will end soon. This idea, this personal and existential reality, makes you focus your behavior on emotionally gratifying experiences. You no longer care about a future reward. You would rather enjoy your well-being in the here and now. Long-term plans start to mean less and less.

Emotional intelligence in older adults can be explained by the socioemotional selectivity theory and the dynamic integration theory.

Two seniors riding bikes.

Dynamic integration

  • The dynamic integration theory proposes a different explanation. Aging makes people realize, little by little, how their physical and cognitive abilities diminish. They aren’t as agile as before, they live with hip pain, diabetes, arthritis, etc… When faced with a reality they can’t change, seniors choose positive emotions for their own balance and happiness. At the end of the day, emotions are something you can control.
  • Experience shapes the emotional intelligence of older adults. Time has taught them how to better control certain emotional situations. They understand how emotions work, they can manage them better, and they’re better at recognizing other people’s needs.
  • Another interesting and revealing aspect of all of this is called the “positivity effect”. There are people who put their experiences on a balance and decide to keep the most gratifying ones. This is like a personal filter that helps you focus on the positive. It allows you to create significant bonds with others and see everything through an optimistic lens.
A happy senior couple.

Promoting an emotionally intelligent and positive maturity

Good emotional intelligence in seniors translates into a better quality of life. What’s more, it helps your physical health as well. Good emotional management reduces stress and depression. It helps with all of the daily challenges of being an older adult: loss, illness, dependency, etc…

Remember that emotional intelligence isn’t automatic. It doesn’t just appear when you reach a certain age. Not everyone knows what it is. Or, if you do know what it is, you might not use it in the most effective way. Thus, it would be interesting and perhaps beneficial for communities to offer emotional intelligence programs for seniors.

Good emotional intelligence in seniors translates into a better quality of life.

A worried elderly woman.

These could be multidisciplinary programs that would consider each individual story and context. Aging is sometimes accompanied by some type of personal crisis. Lack of motivation and depression can become overwhelming. Helping our seniors develop empathy, emotional control, and social skills would make it easier on them.

In conclusion, we believe that emotional intelligence in seniors (and everyone else) is the key to good health. It’s what makes it possible for seniors to live a more fulfilling and happy life. After all, life expectancy is increasing every day. We have the right to the best resources that will help us live our lives to the fullest.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.