The ability to positively reframe negative experiences appears to increase as individuals grow older, according to a new psychological study.

Investigators asked more than 280 participants aged 18 to 88 years old to watch a series of film clips featuring subjects that ranged in expected emotional effect from negative, such as scenes of war; neutral, such as weather reports; and pleasing, such as footage of happy babies. They were asked to allow any emotional responses to arise naturally, or — in response to half of the negative clips — to actively try to positively reframe their responses.

When investigators analyzed participants’ reports of these experiences, they found that the older adults reacted more positively to the film clips — no matter the expected emotional effect, reported Susanne Schweizer, Ph.D., of the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

These older participants also were better able than the younger cohort to positively reframe a negative experience in a more positive way. This was true even though there appeared to be a more negative resting mood state, called “basal negative affect,” among the older participants.

“These data correspond quite neatly to the socioemotional selectivity theory of aging,” Schweizer said. “This theory states that, as we age, we become more adept at navigating our social environment, carrying a broader psychological toolkit or simply rearranging our lives to minimize drama.”

The researchers also compared the results with existing imaging data of the aging brain. Full findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.