A recently published study finds that as we age, we become more content and have more stable and yet more complex emotional lives. We begin experiencing more “poignancy,” which the researchers define as having positive and negative emotions at the same time.
Boy oh boy. Poignancy. There’s a lot of that to life, isn’t there?
The lead researcher behind the study is Stanford University developmental psychologist Laura Carstensen, who in the 1990s proposed one of my favorite theories.
Socioemotional selectivity theory posits that as we age and start feeling the pressure of time, we allow less important things to drop away and focus on the people who matter most.
Numbers have been crunched on this theory here and there, and it holds up well.
Actually, the consolidation of relationships appears to start happening pretty early—in a 1992 study, Carstensen found that socializing with acquaintances drops off most dramatically between the ages of 18 and 30. (Of course, she acknowledged, those are years when people get busy with career and family.)
She also found that the older we get, the more time we spend with family and our closest friends. Spouses and siblings become more important. As we age, we feel closer to our close friends, even if we don’t see them a lot.
That’s the happy part of socioemotional selectivity theory.
But the other side of socioemotional selectivity is subtraction.
Letting people go, even those who really need to go, never makes me feel good. Sometimes friendships explode in a blaze of fury; sometimes they fade away from benign neglect; sometimes we withdraw life support, not returning phone calls or emails.
For a while, the friendship is merely injured or on the back burner. But then, eventually, we think about reconnecting with the person and consciously decide not to. We let go.
What’s that old saw? For a reason, a season, or a lifetime…
Psychologist (and friend) Irene Levine, who has written a book and blogs about women’s friendships, speaks often about the shame many of us feel when friendships end. After all, we’re told that true friendships are forever. But they’re not. Not all of them. Some friendships have their moment but can’t make it for the long haul.
And it seems to me that midlife is a time for churn in friendships. Some get stronger, others fall away.
“As people age, we become more discerning about our friendships,” Irene says. “We are more likely to become selfish about how we spend our time and with whom. We have a better sense of whom we are, a greater sense of independence, and recognize that friends need to add to our lives, not deplete them. Many people use this time to take inventory of their friendships and purge those that are draining.”
Our time on earth is finite. We don’t want to squander it. Sometimes we have to let go of the past to make room for the present. This is part of socioemotional selectivity.
It frees us to focus on the important things in life. And that enhances our happiness.
But even so, letting go of friendships is sad.
Happy and sad.
That’s life in the real world.