Age, stress, and emotional complexity: Results from two studies of daily experiences

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Experiencing positive and negative emotions together (i.e., co-occurrence) has been described as a marker of positive adaptation during stress and a strength of socioemotional aging. Using data from daily diary (N = 2,022; ages 33-84) and ecological momentary assessment (N = 190; ages 20-80) studies, we evaluate the utility of a common operationalization of co-occurrence, the within-person correlation between positive affect (PA) and negative affect (NA). Then we test competing predictions regarding when co-occurrence will be observed and whether age differences will be present. Results indicate that the correlation is not an informative indicator of co-occurrence. Although correlations were stronger and more negative when stressors occurred (typically interpreted as lower co-occurrence), objective counts of emotion reports indicated that positive and negative emotions were 3 to 4 times more likely to co-occur when stressors were reported. This suggests that co-occurrence reflects the extent to which negative emotions intrude on typically positive emotional states, rather than the extent to which people maintain positive emotions during stress. The variances of both PA and NA increased at stressor reports, indicating that individuals reported a broader not narrower range of emotion during stress. Finally, older age was associated with less variability in NA and a lower likelihood of co-occurring positive and negative emotions. In sum, these findings cast doubt on the utility of the PA-NA correlation as an index of emotional co-occurrence, and question notion that greater emotional co-occurrence represents either a typical or adaptive emotional state in adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)577-587
Number of pages11
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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