In that aging successfully has been linked with the “positivity effect”, a biased tendency towards and preference for positive, emotionally gratifying experiences, German neuroscientists reveal the physiological basis for positive, emotionally gratifying experiences to promote well-being as we age. Stefanie Brassen, from University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (Germany), and colleagues used neuroimaging to evaluate brain engagement in young and old adults while they performed a specialized cognitive task that included supposedly irrelevant pictures of either neutral, happy, sad or fearful faces.

During parts of the task when they didn’t have to pay as much attention, the elderly subjects were significantly more distracted by the happy faces. When this occurred, they had increased engagement in the part of the brain that helps control emotions and this stronger signal in the brain was correlated with those who showed the greatest emotional stability. As well, the team found a relationship between rostral anterior cingulate cortex activity and emotional stability, which they submit further strengthens the hypothesis that this increased emotional control in aging enhances emotional well being. Writing that their study elucidates, “how the brain might mediate the tendency to preferentially engage in positive information processing in healthy aging,” the researchers submit that: “These findings are of particular relevance regarding implications for the understanding, treatment, and prevention of non-successful aging like highly prevalent late-life depression.”