When a person shows hostility towards you, how do you respond? Islam teaches that the strongest among us refrain from showing anger in return. The Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him said:
"The strong man is not the one who can wrestle, but the strong man is the one who can control himself at the time of anger."
The statement above applies to everyone from the young to the old. A new study presented at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) 66th Annual Scientific Meeting found that older adults could be better at anger management. In the study, “Age Differences in Affective and Cardiovascular Responses to a Negative Social Interaction,” Dr. Gloria Luong, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, reported that older adults react more calmly than younger adults when confronted with controlled hostility.
To test whether emotion regulation improves with age, Dr. Luong presented 79 older adults (ages 60-88 years) and 80 younger adults (ages 18-28 years) with a confederate, a negative stranger of the same age and gender, and tasked them to solve a dilemma together. For instance, the participants may have been asked “whether one would steal an antidote to save a family member's life if that was the only way to save that person,” and required to select a canned response such as “yes” or “no.” Study participants believed that the confederate was a peer participant, when in fact the investigators had instructed these peer individuals to cause problems in the group. The confederate had been trained to memorize and follow a specific code indicating when to disagree and how to act in a disagreeable and unfriendly manner.
Many study participants felt offended and disturbed by the confederate, and some responded reciprocally and worse. To quantify the extent of their disturbance, and compare the two age groups, the investigators took behavioral and physiological measurements after the negative social interaction. The investigators found that following the task, the older adults exhibited less negative affect, lower diastolic blood pressure, and lower pulse rate than the younger adults. Furthermore, the older adults exhibited a more pronounced recovery after the experience. These cardiovascular responses indicate that the older adults exhibited less reactivity in the first place and recovered faster after the experience.
Dr. Luong’s research builds off of a body of work aiming to understand emotional reactivity across the lifespan. Previous studies have found that older age is associated with less affective reactivity (Birditt & Fingerman, 2003); however, the mechanism of this regulation is unknown. Do older adults’ surround themselves with people who treat them more kindly (Fingerman & Charles, 2010)? Or do older adults regulate their emotions better (Blanchard-Fields, 2007)? Dr. Luong’s findings suggest that older adults are better than younger adults at regulating their emotions in tense social settings.
This finding that emotion regulation could improve with age represents a sample of the work shared at the recent GSA Annual Meeting, held from November 20-24 in New Orleans. Each presentation related to the theme of the meeting, “Optimal Aging Through Research.” Dr. Lawrence Rubenstein, GSA President encouraged the 3,700+ gerontologists in attendance to “change how the world thinks of the second half of life.” Dr. Richard Allman, the Donald P. Kent Award recipient, further assigned the following challenge: “to create a world where aging comes with opportunities.”
As Muslims, we know that showing respect to the elderly is a part of faith. Prophet Muhammad warned:
“He is not one of us who does not show tenderness to the young and who does not show respect to the elder.” [Hadith from at-Tirmidhi]
While they may be more vulnerable in terms of physical strength and some domains of cognition, Dr. Luong’s recent study shows that older adults are stronger in terms of emotions. Thus, in the sense that matters most, our elders may represent the strongest among us. Nevertheless, we do not need to wait until we reach old ages to master our emotions. The Prophet commanded us all to refrain from anger:
“A man said to the Prophet, ‘Give me advice.’ The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Do not get angry.’ The man asked repeatedly and the Prophet answered each time, ‘Do not get angry.’” [Hadith from Bukhari and Muslim]
Achieving the ultimate regulation of emotions could be achieved by turning to Allah at all ages. As we strive to emulate Prophet Muhammad in responding to hostility with kindness, we can also learn from the elders in our community. With their increased patience and wisdom, they have much to offer. As they grow old, let us continue to value the contributions of our elders and honor them with the highest positions of respect, like the Prophet commanded us.
Luong, G and Charles, S. Age Differences in Affective and Cardiovascular Responses to a Negative Social Interaction [abstract]. In: The Gerontological Society of America 66th Annual Scientific Meeting; 2013 Nov 20-24; New Orleans, Louisiana.