Author: ‘On average, the experience of daily stress won’t get worse, but in fact get better.’
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There’s no way around it: Modern life is stressful. We all have bills to pay, responsibilities to meet, and goals to achieve. For countless people, the demands of daily life often result in daily stress. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life right now, new research from Penn State is here to say chances are it will get better — eventually. Researchers report that the number of daily stressors and people’s reactivity to daily stressors tends to decrease with age.
In other words, older adults usually encounter fewer stressors throughout their days, but even when they do, they don’t allow those experiences to strain them as much as a younger individual would.
“There’s something about growing old that leads to fewer stressors,” says study leader David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, in a university release. “This could be the types of social roles that we fill as we age. As younger people, we may be juggling more, including jobs, families and homes, all of which create instances of daily stress. But as we age, our social roles and motivations change. Older people talk about wanting to maximize and enjoy the time they have.”
This research was made possible thanks to the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE). Led by Prof. Almeida, this vast research project collected comprehensive data on daily life from more than 3,000 adults across two decades, beginning in 1995. Respondents were between ages 25-74 when the study first began. Subjects took part in a series of phone interviews assessing daily stress levels for eight days in a row. Those surveys were then repeated every nine years, establishing a daily diary spanning over 20 years.
As age goes up, effects of daily stress go down
Researchers saw a notable decrease in the effects of daily stress, in reference to both the number of daily stressors that people reported, as well as their emotional reactivity to said stressors. For instance, while 25-year-olds reported stressors on nearly 50 percent of days, 70-year-olds reported stressors on only 30 percent of days.
Additionally, researchers also observed that as most people grow older, they become less emotionally reactive to daily stressors when they do happen.
“A 25-year-old is much grumpier on the days when they experience a stressor, but as we age, we really figure out how to decrease those exposures,” Prof. Almeida explains.
Daily stress tends to steadily drop until one’s mid-50s, which is when most people appear to be the least affected by stress exposures. Interestingly, Prof. Almeida also notes that early indicators suggest older age (late 60s and early 70s) may actually bring about more challenges and a slight increase in daily stress.
Will findings be changed from the pandemic?
Moving forward, researchers are already looking ahead to the next round of data collection. Notably, this will be the first initiative since the COVID-19 pandemic. Prof. Almeida and his team want to assess how the pandemic has influenced daily stress reactivity. The next round of data collection will also facilitate further research regarding how people grow and change as they move through adulthood.
“Growing older from 35 to 65 is very different than growing older from 65 to 95,” Prof. Almeida adds. “We’ve started to see that in the data already, but this next round of data collection and analysis will give us an even greater understanding of what that looks like. At the end of the next post-pandemic data collection in a couple of years, I’ll be in my early 60s, and when I started this project, I was in my late 20s. My own development has occurred during this study of midlife, and it has been enlightening to watch these findings play out in my own life.”
In conclusion, Prof. Almeida posits that we all age and grow older in our own way. How we age depends not only on the challenges and stressors we encounter, but how we react to and handle those situations.
“A lot of my prior work looked at these small, daily stressors — being late to a meeting, having an argument with a partner, caring for a sick child — and found that our emotional responses to these events are predictive of later health and well-being, including chronic conditions, mental health and even mortality. With this new research, it’s encouraging to see that as we age, we begin to deal with these stressors better. On average, the experience of daily stress won’t get worse, but in fact get better,” he concludes.
The study is published in Developmental Psychology.