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Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 27, No. 2, June 2003 (°

C 2003)

Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span:

An Integrative Perspective Emphasizing
Self-Regulation, Positive Affect,
and Dyadic Processes1
Lisa M. Diamond2,3 and Lisa G. Aspinwall2

In this commentary, we build upon the papers featured in this 2-part special issue
to advance an integrative perspective on emotion regulation that emphasizes the
developmentally specific goal-contexts of emotional phenomena. We highlight the
importance of (1) multilevel longitudinal investigations of interactions among
biological, affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes with respect to emotion
regulation; (2) the integration of emotion-regulation processes with self-regulatory
processes across the life course; (3) the dynamic relationship between positive
and negative affect and their respective influence on regulatory processes; and
(4) greater consideration of the dyadic context of emotion-regulation processes.
From this perspective, the optimal developmental outcome with respect to emotion
regulation is not affective homeostasis, but rather a dynamic flexibility in emotional
experience, the ability to pursue and prioritize different goals, and the capacity
to selectively and proactively mobilize emotions and cognitions in the service of
context-specific and developmentally specific goals.
KEY WORDS: emotion regulation; self-regulation; positive affect; life-span development; multilevel

Historically, effective regulation of emotions has been viewed as a developmen-

tal achievement that serves as a prerequisite for numerous other developmental
tasks. Specifically, because powerful emotions have the potential to disorganize
and/or disrupt multiple psychological processes, modulation of their experience
1 We gratefully acknowledge Cynthia Berg, Mario Mikulincer, Monisha Pasupathi, and Annette Stanton
for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
2 Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.
3 Address all correspondence to Lisa M. Diamond, Department of Psychology, University of Utah, 380
South 1530 East, Room 502, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0251; e-mail:


0146-7239/03/0600-0125/0 °
C 2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation
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126 Diamond and Aspinwall

and expression (through both intrapsychic and interpersonal processes) has been
considered essential for basic state regulation, behavioral exploration, cognitive
processing, and social competence (reviewed in Fox, 1994). According to this
standard developmental view, infants and children initially rely on interactions
with their caregivers to regulate their emotions, and they progressively internalize
these abilities as they mature. Individual differences in capacities and strategies
for emotion regulation carry over into adulthood, where they influence coping
styles, problem solving, social support processes, relationship quality, and mental
and physical health (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; Fabes & Eisenberg, 1997;
Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002).
Over the years, increasingly sophisticated research on interrelationships
among emotion, behavior, cognition, and metacognition at different stages of
life has elaborated and complicated this basic picture. New theoretical and em-
pirical approaches to emotion regulation have been emerging within a number
of different research traditions, ranging from experimental social psychology
(Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000; Gross, 1998) to develop-
mental neurobiology and psychopathology (Schore, 1996b; Siegel, 2001) to be-
havioral medicine (Glynn, Christenfeld, & Gerin, 2002; Melamed, 1996). Our
goal for this special issue has been to highlight some of these new developments
and their implications for reconceptualizing emotion-regulation and related pro-
cesses across the life course. In this commentary, we expand on the authors’
contributions, drawing together their collective insights and identifying interest-
ing and important directions for future investigation. Specifically, we empha-
size emerging themes and questions in the following four domains: (1) multi-
level investigations of “what develops” across biological, affective, cognitive,
and behavioral domains with respect to emotion regulation; (2) the integration of
emotion-regulation processes with self-regulatory processes across the life course;
(3) the dynamic relationship between positive and negative affect and their respec-
tive influence on regulatory processes; and (4) reconceptualizing boundaries be-
tween “self” and “other” in considering the dyadic context of emotion-regulation
A guiding concept throughout the special issue is a life span perspective
that emphasizes the embeddedness of psychological processes in developmentally
specific tasks, goals, competencies, and needs. Such developmental considerations
may be most salient during infancy and childhood, yet they are just as important
and influential from adolescence through late life (Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Baltes,
Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998). Many of the key findings, concepts, and theo-
ries regarding infants’ and children’s emotion regulation have fascinating points of
resonance and tension with the findings, concepts, and theories that have developed
in the adult research. We aim to highlight and build upon these points, taking a pre-
liminary step toward integrative conceptualizations of emotion regulation that can
model its development and mental/physical health implications over the life course.
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 127


Developmental Transitions Across Multiple Levels of Analysis

An integrative, multilevel, life span approach to emotion regulation requires

that we define and differentiate between emotion and emotion regulation and spec-
ify exactly what changes—at what stage of life—with respect to these phenomena.
We share widely held conceptualizations of emotion that emphasize its multi-
componential nature and its functional significance. Specifically, emotions are
evolved situation-response tendencies that involve (a) subjective feeling states,
(b) cognition and information processing, (c) expressive displays and behavior,
(d) motivation, and (e) physiological responses. Emotions can be viewed as a
temporary—albeit loose (Lang, Rice, & Sternbach, 1972)—coordination and syn-
chronization of these systems (Scherer, 1984) that evolved to organize and motivate
adaptive, survival-promoting responses to environmental demands and opportu-
nities (Levenson, 1994; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Emotion regulation refers to
the internal and transactional processes through which individuals consciously or
unconsciously modulate one or more components of emotion, by modifying ei-
ther their own experience/behavior/expression or the emotion-eliciting situation
(Eisenberg, Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2000; Gross, 1999).
Of course, differentiating between emotion and emotion regulation is tricky
business. As Gross (1999) noted, the distinction between these concepts implies
that an emotional experience or expression “after” regulation is fundamentally dif-
ferent from its “unregulated” state, yet some have argued that emotions are always
regulated to some degree (Fridja, 1986; Tomkins, 1984). Gross (1999) adopts a
middle ground between these two extremes and argues for an emphasis on relative
regulation of different aspects of emotional phenomena under different circum-
stances. However, he cautions that an ongoing and critical challenge for research
on such processes involves specifying whether emotion regulation has even oc-
curred, what components of emotion have been regulated, and how regulation has
altered such components.
These issues are especially pertinent for developmental perspectives on emo-
tion regulation that emphasize its role in the achievement of age-specific tasks and
competencies and its sensitivity to multiple developmental transitions. The con-
tributions to this special issue have effectively highlighted just how wide-ranging
these transitions can be. Fox and Calkins’ review, for example, clearly demonstrates
how the development of cognitive and attentional processes shapes children’s
emerging capacities to control emotional expression and emotion-motivated behav-
iors (Fox & Calkins, 2003). Davenport and colleagues’ work with rhesus monkeys
(Davenport et al., 2003) charts important—and heretofore uninvestigated—
developmental transitions up through the juvenile period in the functioning of
the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical (HPA) axis, which has been shown to
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128 Diamond and Aspinwall

be associated with emotional experience and regulation across the life course
(Stansbury & Gunnar, 1994).
Investigating the longitudinal course of such processes is particularly im-
portant for understanding the origins and long-term implications of individual
differences in emotion regulation, which have been a long-standing focus of both
the infant/child and adult literatures. As Fox and Calkins (2003) point out, it is crit-
ical to understand not only what children “bring” to emotion-regulation situations
in the way of temperament differences, but how the child’s caregivers and peers
respond to these temperamental factors, and how dynamic processes occurring at
different developmental moments alter the developmental trajectory of emotion
regulation and related capacities. This notion is also a critical feature of attach-
ment theory, illustrated by Bowlby’s use of a “railway” metaphor to describe how
personality development might begin on a single “track,” but necessarily branches
and diverges from this initial trajectory as the result of progressive life experiences
(Bowlby, 1973).
The long-term importance of early environment at a biological level is illus-
trated by Davenport et al.’s paper, which demonstrates that early-rearing influences
on rhesus monkeys’ HPA activity (assessed via measures of plasma and salivary
cortisol) have different manifestations at different stages of development. Specifi-
cally, they found that in early infancy, when HPA activity is typically high, infant
surrogate-reared monkeys had lower levels of salivary cortisol than did mother-
reared monkeys. This is similar to the blunted HPA reactivity that has been observed
in maltreated human children (Hart, Gunnar, & Cicchetti, 1995), and which may
represent an adapation to chronic stress that protects the developing brain from
the maladaptive effects of heightened exposure to glucocorticoids (Gunnar, 1998;
Gunnar & Nelson, 1994). Notably, however, Davenport and colleagues found that
the plasma cortisol reponses of these same monkeys during the juvenile period
showed a different pattern. At 1 year of age, surrogate-reared monkeys had higher
plasma cortisol levels, but by 3 years of age they had lower levels.
In contrast to these age-dependent patterns of group differences, individual
differences in rhesus monkeys’ HPA activity showed high stability from infancy
through the juvenile period, consistent with research on humans demonstrating re-
liable individual differences in HPA reactivity to stress (Kirschbaum et al., 1995;
Spangler & Grossman, 1993). Notably, however, although such individual differ-
ences are correlated with behavioral and self-report measures of emotion regu-
lation, such as coping strategies and negative affectivity (reviewed in Scarpa &
Raine, 1997; Stansbury & Gunnar, 1994), much remains to be learned about the
precise relationship between these different domains at different stages of life.
Emotion regulation is likely accomplished by multiple interacting mechanisms
across different levels of organization, such that an outcome like “angry outburst”
or “attentional shifting” has multiple biological, cognitive, and behavioral an-
tecedents and consequences.
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 129

Yet, to capture and interpret critical linkages across these different levels, it
is not enough to simply document correlations among them (i.e., high behavioral
and biological reactivity). Not only do such correlations fail to demonstrate causal
associations, but they are insufficient to specify the mechanisms underlying links
across domains. For example, might genetically based patterns of HPA reactivity
set the stage for the development of poor coping, or might poor coping exacerbate
stress and hence give rise to chronic HPA overactivation? Of course, both explana-
tions may apply: Such response patterns are often reciprocally determined, making
it even more important to systematically tackle multiple levels of analysis in both
controlled laboratory settings and naturalistic environments (Cacioppo, Berntson,
Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000) in order to identify the relevant developmental
processes. Studying different domains in isolation from one another, or in only
one type of context (such as a controlled emotion induction, naturalistic social in-
teraction, or experimental task performance) may produce distorted perspectives
on emotion-regulation processes and their development over the life course.
It is also critical to consider how specific constellations of individual differ-
ences across multiple domains produce certain typologies of emotional phenom-
ena. For example, Gohm (2003) demonstrated important differences between the
regulatory strategies of emotionally reactive individuals as a function of whether
such individuals also had high emotional clarity, representing their capacity to un-
derstand and interpret the basis for their emotional responses. Specifically, reactive
individuals with low emotional clarity were more easily “overwhelmed” by their
emotions and hence made greater efforts to avoid and attenuate strong emotional
experiences, whereas those with high emotional clarity appeared better able to
tolerate these experiences and their immediate effects.

The Importance of Charting Normative Development

Across Different Domains

Importantly, to take full advantage of multilevel analyses that model com-

plex interactions within and across different domains of emotional experience
and regulation, we must have more accurate portraits of normative development
in each domain. Currently, we know much more about the life course develop-
mental trajectories of certain areas (such as attention, information processing,
and social behavior) than others (HPA functioning past infancy and childhood).
Davenport et al. (2003) have made a notable contribution to the latter by docu-
menting that the standard increase in rhesus monkeys’ HPA activity during early
infancy is followed by a gradual decline over the juvenile period. They suggest
that these changes might correspond to normative behavioral transitions occur-
ring at the same stages. Specifically, the initial increase in HPA activity might
correspond to infants’ nascent exploratory forays away from their mothers, and
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130 Diamond and Aspinwall

their neuroendocrine response to novel situations at this stage may be an adaptive

defense mechanism against environmental threats. With greater maturation comes
the capacity to reliably distinguish between novelty and threat, and therefore at
this stage higher thresholds for HPA activation might be considered more adaptive.
This interpretation is consistent with research on human children’s HPA re-
sponses to novelty. One study of preschoolers (Gunnar, Tout, de Haan, Pierce, &
Stansbury, 1997) found that the children who were most outgoing, competent, and
well liked by their peers were those who showed high HPA activity in the initial
weeks of the school year—when children were first becoming acquainted with
one another—but showed declines in reactivity as the year progressed. In contrast,
children whose HPA reactivity stayed high throughout the school year, or whose
reactivity started low-to-normal but increased over time, were more affectively
negative and solitary. Such findings run directly contrary to the notion (common in
the adult literature) that exaggerated physiological reactivity is uniformly indica-
tive of poor regulation, and instead suggest the adaptive value of initial periods
of heightened reactivity followed by cognitive reappraisal and subsequent physi-
ological downregulation.
This perspective is also supported by research on the early development of
parasympathetic nervous system functioning. As reviewed in Diamond (2001),
individuals with greater parasympathetic regulation of heart rate (i.e., high vagal
tone) are typically conceptualized as having nervous systems that flexibly react
to and recover from environmental stressors, whereas individuals with low vagal
tone are conceptualized as having more vigilant, inflexible nervous systems that are
less effective at mobilizing the appropriate metabolic response to environmental
challenges (Porges, Doussard-Roosevelt, & Maiti, 1994). Correspondingly, low
vagal tone has been shown to be associated with poorer regulation of emotional
experience and expression, particularly in response to stress, in both children (Fox,
1989; Porges, 1991) and adults (Brosschot & Thayer, 1998; Fabes & Eisenberg,
Yet in early infancy, higher levels of vagal tone are associated with greater
emotional reactivity (Calkins & Fox, 1992; di Pietro, Larson, & Porges, 1995;
Fox, 1989), which some might interpret as a sign of ineffective or underregulation.
However, this pattern of findings might suggest a developmental pathway in which
early reactivity provides the infant—and the caregiver—with critical opportuni-
ties to begin mastering flexible up- and downregulation of affective states through
attentional and behavioral processes, so that future positive and negative reactivity
can be appropriately “tuned.” Such findings demonstrate the importance of mul-
tilevel longitudinal research aimed at broadening our basic understanding of how
multiple processes related to emotion regulation develop from infancy through late
life, and at elucidating potential bidirectional associations among these processes.
Some developmental researchers, such as Izard (1991), have argued that such
dynamic interconnections among the emotion, cognition, and action systems are
among the most important sites for developmental change with respect to emotion,
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 131

and thus they are clearly among the most fascinating areas for future research on
the origins and implications of individual differences.

The Development of Metacognition About Emotion

Another key area for future research concerns individuals’ (presumably in-
creasing) capacities to reflect upon their own personal and context-specific needs,
challenges, strengths, and weaknesses in the process of selecting appropriate
emotion-regulation strategies across different situations. In many ways, this is
similar to emerging views of “emotional intelligence” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990)
that emphasize how psychological well-being and interpersonal functioning are
facilitated by the accurate perception, appraisal, and expression of emotion, effec-
tive utilization of emotion in the service of cognitive processing, effective com-
prehension and communication of emotion-relevant concepts, and the capacity
to regulate one’s own emotions and those of others. This, of course, is a fairly
broad view—we are specifically interested in the metacognitive “pieces” of this
conceptualization, or individuals’ abilities to monitor their own history of success
or failure with different emotion-regulation attempts, accurately diagnose their
strengths and weaknesses, anticipate challenges, and structure their environments
and behaviors accordingly.
Clearly, this type of “meta–emotion-cognition” is relevant at all stages of
life, not just early childhood, especially given that the goal-related contexts in
which emotions are regulated change substantially over the entire life course. For
example, Sansone and Berg (1993) have found that notably different types of ev-
eryday problems are salient and important to individuals at different stages of
life. Whereas young children are most concerned with problems regarding fam-
ily relationships, adolescents and adults are primarily concerned with problems
within the school and workplace contexts, respectively. In late life, family matters
again come to the fore. Given such changes, we think a fascinating and important
question for future research concerns how, beginning in childhood and extend-
ing through late life, individuals develop (or fail to develop) progressively greater
expertise in understanding, predicting, monitoring, and especially changing their
own emotion-regulation strategies as their skills, needs, goals, and environments
change. Fonagy and Target (1997), for example, has emphasized that children’s
developing capacities for self-reflection play a key role in such processes, con-
tributing not only to their emerging “theory of mind” but also to their overall sense
of attachment security.
Consider, also, the research reviewed by Carstensen, Fung, and Charles
(2003). Their view of emotion regulation is grounded in socioemotional selec-
tivity theory (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999), which posits that older
adults’ increasing awareness of time limitations motivates them to prioritize the
seeking of emotional meaning over other goals. Carstensen et al. review evidence
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132 Diamond and Aspinwall

suggesting that late life declines in older adults’ social networks can be interpreted
as selective social pruning that serves the goal of emotional meaning seeking by
prioritizing more positive and emotionally significant relationships over less im-
portant social contacts. One intriguing question, of course, is the extent to which
such pruning takes place at a conscious versus unconscious level, and whether indi-
viduals with more sophisticated “meta–emotion-cognition” regarding their needs
and goals (and the quality of their current relationships) are more successful in
making such adaptive behavioral and interpersonal shifts than are others. The same
question applies to “antecedent emotion regulation” (Gross, 1998) and “proactive
coping” (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997), both of which involve the anticipation and
preemptive management of emotional responses by proactively shaping and/or
selecting one’s environments, behaviors, and cognitions. These processes have re-
ceived less attention in the infant/child than in the adult literature, and therefore
life course investigations of their normative development, individual differences
in their use and success, and their relationship to other forms of self-regulation
would prove fascinating.
The question of meta–emotion-cognition is also relevant to understanding the
intergenerational transmission of individual differences in emotion regulation, the
topic addressed by Cumberland-Li, Eisenberg, Champion, Gershoff, and Fabes
(2003). They investigate different potential mechanisms through which parents’
emotionality is associated with their children’s emotion-regulation capacities and
strategies, and identify a critical role for maternal positive expressiveness. Specif-
ically, associations between mothers’ negative emotionality and their children’s
externalizing and internalizing problems were mediated by the low positive emo-
tional expressiveness of “emotionally negative” mothers. This finding raises inter-
esting questions with regard to metacognition—specifically, to what extent might
some parents be more or less aware of their own temperamental emotionality and
make concerted efforts to alter their behaviors and emotional expressions in order
to better socialize their children? Interestingly, it might be the salient and important
goal of “producing well-adjusted children” that motivates some adults to engage in
meta–emotion-cognition to begin with, highlighting again the notion that changes
in individuals’ goals across the life course are fundamentally intertwined with their
motivations and strategies for emotion regulation.
Accurately modeling such interconnections and their developmental impli-
cations requires comprehensive specification of the goal-related contexts of emo-
tional experience and regulation. Toward this end, we think that the emotion-
regulation literature would benefit from more systematic integration with theory
and research on broader forms of self-regulation that take different forms, and as-
sume different degrees of importance, at different stages of life. In fact, we found
that links between emotion-regulation and self-regulatory processes were a recur-
rent (albeit often latent) theme in many of the contributions to this special issue,
and in the next section we explore the theoretical and empirical implications of a
more integrated approach to these phenomena.
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 133



Whereas emotion regulation involves the modulation of emotion-related ex-

periences through internal and transactional processes, self-regulation is typically
conceptualized as involving the control, direction, and correction of one’s own
actions in the process of moving toward or away from various goals (Carver &
Scheier, 1990). The key features of most self-regulatory approaches include con-
sideration of an individual’s current goals and the hierarchical ordering among
competing goals, the process of monitoring and correcting goal progress, and the
standards used to evaluate such progress. Thus, whereas emotion-regulation mod-
els typically focus on the modulation of affective experiences and consequences
while leaving the goal-related contexts of emotional experience unspecified, most
self-regulation models focus on modulating progress toward goals, and aside from
the “signaling” and informational functions of emotions, the influences of emo-
tions on goal pursuit and the broader affective context of goal pursuit are often left
We think that greater integration of these perspectives would provide for more
accurate developmental models of linkages between emotions and goal pursuit
over the life course, particularly given the increasing body of research demon-
strating powerful interconnections among emotion-regulation and self-regulatory
processes across multiple domains. Neurobiological research, for example, demon-
strates that neural circuits associated with emotional experience and regulation are
integrated in the prefrontal cortex with neural circuits responsible for the regulation
of bodily states, social perception and cognition, interpersonal communication, and
autobiographical memory (Siegel, 1999). Consequently, Siegel (1999) argued that
emotion regulation “can be seen at the center of the self-organization of the mind”
(p. 245). Dodge (1991) has made a similar argument regarding cognition and in-
formation processing, noting that “emotion is the energy that drives, organizes,
amplifies, and attenuates cognitive activity and in turn is the experience and ex-
pression of this activity” (p. 159), and Fox and Calkins (2003) have emphasized the
fundamental role of emotion with respect to the basic approach and withdrawal
behaviors that structure infant’s and children’s initial forays into environmental
exploration and goal pursuit.
Such perspectives suggest that “carving out” emotion regulation and investi-
gating it in isolation from related self-regulatory processes might convey a distorted
picture of its underlying mechanisms, developmental trajectory, and long-term im-
plications for mental and physical health. Historically, however, research on inter-
connections among the organizing and valuing functions of emotions, information
processing, social behavior, and personality have been largely confined to the in-
fant/child literature. In contrast, the adult social psychological literature has tended
to portray affect and cognition as separate and often opposing processes (i.e., hot
vs. cold processing, thinking vs. feeling, emotion-focused vs. problem-focused
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134 Diamond and Aspinwall

coping; for reviews and critiques, see Isen, 2003; Isen & Hastorf, 1982; Stanton,
Kirk, Cameron, & Danoff-Burg, 2000). These perspectives often portray emotions
as generally disruptive to cognition and directed action, such that emotion regu-
lation becomes a necessary precursor for goal pursuit, or they portray emotional
states as fixed goals in and of themselves (e.g., maximal positive and minimal
negative affect) that do not vary as a function of other objectives.
We think that one important advantage of considering emotion regulation
in the context of more general self-regulatory processes is that such an approach
might serve as a corrective to such views. Of course, we have presented relatively
extreme formulations of these perspectives, and we are certainly not the first to
advocate for flexible goal- and context-dependent analyses of the functions and
effects of positive and negative emotions (e.g., Aspinwall, 1998; Feldman Barrett
& Salovey, 2002; Isen, 2003; Martin & Davies, 1998; Parrott, 2002; Stanton,
Parsa, & Austenfeld, 2002). Overall, however, much work remains to be done in
building integrative conceptualizations of emotion-regulation and self-regulation
that systematically model the goal-dependent context of emotions, the diverse
and complex ways that emotions regulate and are regulated by goal pursuit, and
developmental changes in these phenomena over the life course. Toward this end,
we draw upon the contributions to this Special Issue and related work in the adult
and infant/child literatures to specifically illustrate the promise and prospect of a
more integrative emotion-regulation and self-regulatory perspective.

Examples of the Goal-Context of Emotion Regulation

Consider, for example, the issue of coping. In their original work on cop-
ing processes, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguished between direct attempts
to remediate a problem/stressor (problem-focused coping) and efforts to manage
one’s feelings about the problem/stressor (emotion-focused coping). Although
their framework did not originally assert that one type of regulatory effort was
functionally superior to the other, over the years emotion- and problem-focused
coping came to be treated as separate and, to some degree, antithetical (see Stanton
et al., 2000), such that efforts to regulate one’s emotions—via presumably mal-
adaptive processes such as self-blame, venting, and scapegoating—were viewed
as interfering with active problem-solving and leading to poor mental health out-
comes over time.
Yet this approach does not adequately represent the potentially constructive
effects of emotional experience, expression, and regulatory efforts on both spe-
cific coping episodes and overall well-being. In particular, drawing on work by
Carver and Scheier (1990), Thompson (1994), Carstensen et al. (1999), and others,
Stanton et al. (2002) identified several potential functions that emotional experi-
ence and expression may play in coping: processing and expressing emotions may
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 135

(a) direct one’s attention toward central concerns; (b) result in the identification
of discrepancies between one’s progress and the expected rate of progress; (c)
result in habituation to the stressor through repeated exposure or through cogni-
tive reappraisal; (d) facilitate regulation of the social environment (e.g., by letting
other people know of one’s situation); and (e) also aid in the selection of satisfying
emotional environments. As obvious and compelling as some of these functions
of emotional experience, processing, and expression might seem from a develop-
mental perspective, they are rarely examined in the coping literature.
Rather than rigidly differentiating between emotion- and problem-focused
coping, we think it is more productive to think about how the management of
emotional states is integrated to different degees with a range of other goals
under difference circumstances. This approach is well reflected in Carstensen
et al.’s distinction between knowledge-related goals that focus on the acquisition
of new information and experiences and emotion-related goals that revolve around
one’s own or others’ affective states (Carstensen et al. 2003). They posit a curvi-
linear trajectory for emotion-related goals over the life course, such that these
goals are preeminent in early infancy and childhood (consistent with attachment
theory, as outlined by Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003), decline in importance
as knowledge-related goals come to the fore in adolescence and adulthood, and
then become preeminent again in late life. Note that this view is consistent with
Sansone and Berg’s emphasis on the differential salience of family, school, and
work problems at different stages of life (Sansone & Berg, 1993), as well as Dav-
enport and colleagues’ argument that developmental changes in HPA activity may
be linked to normative developmental transitions in exploratory behavior.
It is fascinating to consider other potential models of these goal trajectories,
and their implications for emotion-regulation and self-regulatory processes. Per-
haps, for example, knowledge- and emotion-related goal trajectories are largely
independent of one another early in life, but become progressively more intercon-
nected over time, as individuals develop more sophisticated regulatory skills and
metacognitive abilities that facilitate the coordination of these goals or capacities
for flexibly alternating between them. Consider, too, that older individuals have
been shown to have greater capacity for complex emotional experiences that com-
bine positive and negative feelings (Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, & Nesselroade,
2000). Labouvie-Vief (1996) has argued that this is attributable to the progres-
sive development of more differentiated but integrated senses of self over the life
course, matched by maturing capacities for complex forms of cognition. According
to this view, older individuals might be better able to interpret, manage, and derive
meaning from the conflicting emotions that might result from the simultaneous
pursuit of knowledge- and emotion-related goals.
Another interesting question concerns how the integration of knowledge-
related and emotion-related goals is moderated by individual differences in, for
example, trait levels of positive and negative affectivity, biological substrates of
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136 Diamond and Aspinwall

emotion regulation (such as vagal tone and HPA functioning), or attachment style.
With respect to the latter, Mikulincer et al. (2003) advance a compelling conceptu-
alization of the affect-regulation component of attachment style that highlights the
importance of such integration. Specifically, they differentiate between security-
based strategies of affect regulation (associated with attachment security) and
deactivating or hyperactivating strategies (the former associated with attachment
avoidance and the latter with attachment anxiety). Security-based strategies might
be thought of as combining the “best of” problem- and emotion-focused coping.
Specifically, these strategies incorporate declarative knowledge regarding “opti-
mistic beliefs about distress management, a sense of trust in others’ goodwill, and
a sense of self-efficacy in dealing with threats” (Mikulincer et al., 2003, p. 83) with
procedural knowledge that specifies an integrated coping strategy of acknowledg-
ing and displaying distress, seeking support, and engaging in instrumental problem
Note that in this model, the emotion-focused elements of acknowledging dis-
tress and seeking comfort are fundamentally integrated with classic, instrumental,
problem-focused forms of coping. Security-based strategies clearly resonate with
Stanton and colleagues’ conceptualization of emotion-approach forms of coping,
whereas hyperactivating strategies more closely resemble the aforementioned neg-
ative conceptualization of emotion-focused coping, in which individuals’ preoccu-
pation with and rumination about their negative emotions interferes with problem
solving (Stanton, Danoff-Burg, et al., 2000). Deactivating strategies, in contrast,
involve a maladaptive disconnect between emotion and cognition that may succeed
in preventing negative emotions from disrupting cognition, but that also shuts in-
dividuals off from the beneficial cognitive effects of positive emotion (Mikulincer
& Sheffi, 2000). Although Mikulincer et al. discuss these strategies with respect
to affect regulation, we think they also provide an effective demonstration of how
the coordination of emotion-regulation and other self-regulatory processes facil-
itates effective functioning in a variety of domains in response to environmental

Emotion Regulation and Flexible Goal Prioritization

The aforementioned examples illustrate that efforts to modulate one’s emo-

tional states must be considered in the context of the other goals one may be
pursuing. One way to think about how these different goals interact is to consider
the multiple factors that influence individuals’ prioritization of emotional state
maintenance and change with respect to competing concerns. As noted earlier,
some approaches to emotion regulation have historically posited that the main
goal of emotion regulation is the maximization of positive emotions and/or the
minimization of negative ones; that is, the principal goal of adult self-regulation
is hedonic. In this view, negative states are thought to prompt efforts at “mood
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 137

repair” via addressing the source of the negative feelings, distraction, or other
activities, whereas, under most conditions, positive states are thought to engender
efforts at “mood maintenance” by avoiding information that might compromise
one’s positive mood (e.g., Wegener, Petty, & Smith, 1995).
All things being equal, people may well pursue such hedonic goals (Isen,
1993). However, in most cases, all things are not equal—there is often some other
goal or set of goals people are pursuing that influences both the priority given to
emotion regulation in a particular situation (Isen, 1993) and the meaning of par-
ticular emotions with respect to that goal (Martin, Ward, Achee, & Wyer, 1993).
For example, contrary to the straightforward predictions of “mood-maintenance”
models, research has found that when people are feeling good and they have
an important goal to achieve, they will seek out potentially useful goal-relevant
information even when this information is negative (Aspinwall, 1998; Reed &
Aspinwall, 1998; Trope & Neter, 1994; Trope & Pomerantz, 1998). Other ex-
perimental research has found that individuals attempt to bring their moods to a
neutral state prior to meeting a new person, as if to close the gap between their
present emotional state and whatever actions may be required by the new situation
(Erber, Wegner, & Therriault, 1996). Finally, we must consider that individuals’
subjective experiences and interpretations of emotions are goal-specific: feeling
good does not always have a positive meaning, nor are negative feelings always in-
dicative of a problem. As Martin and Davies (1998) noted, feeling overjoyed when
dropping off one’s partner at the airport for an extended trip may actually commu-
nicate negative—albeit important—information about the relationship, whereas
feeling sad under such circumstances may provide reassuring information about
relationship quality.
Clearly, these examples demonstrate that rather than assuming an invariant
set of emotional goals and priorities (i.e., do not feel bad, feel good), it seems
that emotion regulation—at all stages of life—cannot be understood without some
consideration of what people were trying to do in the situation that elicited the
emotion or in which the emotion was experienced. Thus, one can conceptualize
the ideal developmental “endpoint” of emotion regulation as involving not a fixed
affective homeostasis, but the capacity to integrate and selectively mobilize a
broad range of regulatory functions in the service of coordinated, dynamic, and
context-specific goals that necessarily change over the life course. Charting how
multiple intrapsychic, interpersonal, and biological processes contribute to this
developmental achievement in different ways and at different life stages is a central
area for future research.



Historically, research on the development of emotion regulation has over-

whelmingly focused on negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, and
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138 Diamond and Aspinwall

generalized distress, as well as negatively valenced individual differences in emo-

tional functioning such as neuroticism, inhibition, and attachment insecurity. This
focus on the negative “pole” of emotion regulation is not without cause; extensive
research has demonstrated that both acute and chronic negative emotions impede
children’s and adults’ social functioning, empathy, exploratory behavior, and cog-
nitive processing (Cooper et al., 1998; Eisenberg et al., 2000; Fox & Calkins, 2003;
Mikulincer et al., 2003).
Yet there is a rapidly expanding body of research on positive affect that has
substantial implications for investigating emotion regulation and self-regulation
more broadly, especially when one considers an individual’s current and future
goals, the relative prioritization of these goals, and their immediate and long-term
attentional and motivational demands. Specifically, positive affect has been shown
to facilitate a range of cognitive, social, and behavioral processes that not only
promote better decisions and outcomes on the task at hand, but may also bolster
one’s cognitive and social resources for future goals and tasks (Aspinwall, 1998,
2001; Fredrickson, 1998; Isen, 1993; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2002). Accordingly,
we believe that developmental approaches to emotion and self-regulation would
profit from greater attention to the beneficial psychological and physiological
effects of positive emotions as well as to ways in which the interplay between
positive and negative emotional states—that is, coactivation of these states and/or
transitions between them—shapes regulatory processes.

Beneficial Effects of Positive Emotions and the Interplay

Between Positive/Negative Emotions

Positive emotions have been shown to be associated with multiple cognitive,

interpersonal, and even physiological benefits. For example, experimental studies
have found that positive affect inductions increase cognitive flexibility in ways
that promote effective decision-making (reviewed in Isen, 1993, 2000a), such as
heightening ability to “switch set” (Ashby, Isen, & Turken, 1999), decreasing an-
choring effects (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997), and promoting more broad-minded
forms of coping, such as generating multiple potential solutions to one’s problems
(Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). These properties of positive emotion sustain both
current and future coping and problem solving by promoting the development of
knowledge and other personal and social resources. For example, positive beliefs
and states have been found to be reliably related to more active, approach-oriented
coping as well as the careful processing of goal-relevant negative information
(reviewed in Aspinwall, 2001; Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997). Such strategies may
facilitate both current and future coping by eliciting important information about
the nature of current problems, eliciting feedback about the utility of different
problem-solving strategies, and fostering the development of broader knowledge
about one’s overall coping and problem-solving abilities and resources.
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 139

Tugade and Fredrickson (2002) identified several additional, complementary

ways in which more reflective positive states, such as calmness and contentment,
may promote effective coping, such as facilitating positive reinterpretation and
reframing of one’s problems, the exploration of alternative behavioral approaches,
and the search for meaning and benefit in the midst of adversity. Such strategies
have been found in numerous studies to be associated with better overall adjust-
ment over time to a wide range of stressful events (e.g., Affleck & Tennen, 1996;
Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998; Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Park,
Cohen, & Murch, 1996). Clearly, controlling and managing negative emotions
is not the only route to successful social, emotional, and cognitive functioning,
and future investigations of the development of regulatory capacities should more
systematically study the role of positive emotions in building individuals’ intel-
lectual, social, and psychological resources and resiliencies in multiple domains
at multiple stages of life.
Because positive and negative emotions are governed by different neural
pathways (Lane et al., 1997) and because they influence physical and mental func-
tioning through different neuropsychological mechanisms (Isen, 2002; Taylor,
Dickerson, & Klein, 2002), it makes sense to model their regulatory development
separately. At the same time, research reported in this Special Issue and else-
where increasingly suggests that from infancy to adulthood, a critical aspect of
successful emotion regulation—and self-regulation in general—involves the dy-
namic and coordinated interplay between positive and negative emotional states
(Larsen, Hemenover, Norris, & Cacioppo, 2003; Ryff & Singer, 2003). We think
this interplay is one of the most intriguing and provocative areas for future study,
particularly from a life span perspective.
For example, research on infant/caregiver interactions has increasingly em-
phasized the process of transitioning between negative and positive affective states
rather than simply arriving at “low negative/high positive” endpoints (Beebe &
Lachmann, 1998; Tronick, in press). Similarly, research on adults increasingly
attends to processes through which positive emotions “undo” the negative psy-
chological and physiological effects of negative emotional arousal (Fredrickson
et al., 2000; Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). For example, studies have found
that individuals who are able to mobilize positive emotions and derive positive
meaning from negative experiences report more resilience in the face of adver-
sity (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2002).
These approaches and findings resonate with Cole, Michel, and Teti’s and Siegel’s
conceptualizations of emotional dysregulation as involving not only chaos and/or
disorganization, but also states of rigidity in which one’s affective response to
incoming information loses breadth and flexibility (Cole, Michel, & Teti, 1994;
Siegel, 2001). Because positive emotions are known to enhance flexible and cre-
ative thinking and broad-minded coping (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Joiner,
2002; Isen, 1993, 2000b), some of their most important effects may occur in inter-
action with negative emotional states, as they prevent acute episodes of negative
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140 Diamond and Aspinwall

affect from becoming solidified into defensive and maladaptive regulatory pat-
terns. Coactivation of negative and positive emotions may also enable people to
learn from adversity in ways that promote future resiliency by allowing individ-
uals to bring negative events, emotions, and experiences to mind when they have
the positive resources available to process them in depth (Larsen et al., 2003).
Furthermore, the ability to simultaneously consider both goal-related possibili-
ties/opportunities and potential barriers to their attainment would seem to be the
lynchpin of effective self-regulation (Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001) as well
as proactive coping (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997).
Coactivation of positive and negative emotions is likely to have important
physiological benefits as well. There is now voluminous evidence from research
on health psychology and behavioral medicine demonstrating that both acute and
chronic experiences of negative emotion have immediate and long-term detrimen-
tal effects on neuroendocrine, autonomic, and immune functioning (reviewed in
Kiecolt Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002; Repetti et al., 2002; Ryff &
Singer, 2001; Taylor et al., 2002) that are triggered by the sequential processing
of environmental threat by the neocortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus and
subsequent systemwide neuroendocrine activation (reviewed by Seeman, 2001).
Positive emotions and experiences can potentially alter or prevent the detrimental
effects of such activation by facilitating positive reappraisals of environmental de-
mands and coping resources that “short-circuit” attributions of threats and thereby
alter the cascade of negative neuroendocrine activation before it begins. This may
explain why both short-term positive affect inductions and sustained patterns of
positive affectivity are associated with better physiological functioning on a vari-
ety of levels, ranging from autonomic activity to immune functioning (Fredrickson
et al., 2000; Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Futterman, Kemeny, Shapiro, & Fahey,

Implications of Positive Affect for the Development

of Regulatory Capacities

The vast majority of studies of the multiple benefits associated with positive
emotions have been conducted with adult populations, and their findings practically
cry out for systematic, developmentally oriented investigations. What might we
learn about the development of children’s emotion- and self-regulation capacities,
for example, if we were to investigate not only how children learn to control
displays of anger and distress, but how they learn to deploy humor or positive
reframing in the face of embarrassing, frustrating, or frightening circumstances?
To what extent might effective mobilization of positive emotions make it easier for
children to master flexible and adaptive strategies for the attenuation of negative
emotions? Fox and Calkins (2003) noted that overcontrol of negative emotions
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 141

can be just as developmentally detrimental as undercontrol, and coactivation of

positive and negative emotions might prevent the need for excessive, suppressive
attempts to dampen negative emotions that not only lead to patterns of overcontrol,
but prevent children from learning how to “read” their feelings of distress for the
valuable information they provide about themselves and their environment.
If coactivation serves this function, the degree to which a child’s family regu-
larly seeks and expresses positive experiences and emotions in the face of negative
events might prove particularly important early in development, when children
begin to solidify their strategies for distress regulation. Children whose families
make visible use of positive reframing in the face of negative experiences are
probably most likely to experience the “undoing” benefits of positive emotions
on distress and to integrate positive reframing into their emotion-regulation reper-
toire. This is consistent with Gottman’s emphasis on parental “emotion coaching”
and its psychological and physiological benefits (Gottman, 2001). In this frame-
work, emotion-coaching parents do not deny or dismiss a child’s distress, but view
negative experiences as opportunities for intimacy, learning, and personal growth.
They actively communicate understanding and empathy and help their children
to confront distress and frightening experiences with a sense of control and op-
timism. As a result, Gottman hypothesizes that children with emotion-coaching
parents might develop not only more adaptive psychological and behavioral re-
sponses to stress, but also more adaptive physiological patterns of stress regula-
tion as well, specifically manifested in higher vagal tone. His hypothesis is con-
sistent with extensive evidence that individual differences in emotion regulation
are associated with individual differences in vagal tone (reviewed in Diamond,
Gottman’s perspective on parental emotion coaching is also consistent with
Cumberland-Li et al.’s findings that maternal expression of positive emotion medi-
ated the association between maternal negative emotionality and children’s emo-
tional adjustment (Cumberland-Li et al., 2003). This may be because parents
who openly express positive emotions—particularly under trying circumstances—
actively model the process of mobilizing and building upon positive affect (Denham
& Kochanoff, 2002). The findings of Cumberland-Li et al. suggest that this may be
particularly important for parents with a tendency toward negative affectivity, and
their findings raise the possibility that parental expressions of positive affect might
prevent the direct transmission of parents’ emotion-regulation deficits to their chil-
dren. Given that children begin to shift from simply controlling internal feeling
states to developing a broader familiarity with their own patterns of emotional
response at around age 4–5 (Fox & Calkins, 2003), parental emotion coaching
and positive emotional expressiveness between birth and 4 years of age might
have a particularly formative influence on children’s later emotion-regulation and
self-regulatory capacities; this is clearly a fascinating and important area for future
longitudinal research.
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142 Diamond and Aspinwall

Another area for future developmental research concerns how positive emo-
tions might interact with other cognitive processes as they come “on line” in
infant/child development and begin to shape emotion-regulation processes. Fox
and Calkins (2003) beautifully illustrated how the development of emotion regu-
lation in young children must be understood with respect to the development of
attention, response inhibition, and executive functioning, all of which undergird
children’s abilities to modulate their emotional experiences and expressions. As
reviewed earlier, extensive research on adults has demonstrated that positive af-
fect directly influences such mental processes, and thus it is fascinating to consider
how infants’ and children’s day-to-day exposure to positive emotional experiences
might influence the development of these processes and facilitate their integration
into emotion- and self-regulation strategies. For example, Fox and Calkins in-
dicate that individual differences in attentional control, which begin to emerge
around the 1st year of life, are directly associated with individual differences in
emotion-regulation skills, as well as with positive and negative emotional states.
The implicit assumption is that infants and children with greater attentional
control can more effectively downregulate negative emotions and focus on posi-
tive emotions—this interpretation is consistent with the research they review in-
dicating that 9-month-old infants with greater attentional control showed more
positive affect during peer interactions at later ages. Yet might the association be-
tween positive affect and attentional control be bidirectional? Specifically, might
children’s positive emotional experiences feed back to foster greater attentional
control, further enhancing the development of emotion regulation over time? On
this point, it is notable to consider that chronic HPA hyperreactivity, which is as-
sociated with sustained negative affect and appraisals of environmental demands
as threats rather than challenges, has detrimental effects on attentional and mem-
ory processes (Kirschbaum, Wolf, May, Wippich, & Hellhammer, 1996; Lupien,
Lecours, Lussier, Schwartz, et al., 1994), and such impairments among humans can
be detected as early as 12 months of age (Gunnar, 1998; Gunnar & Nelson, 1994).
Given the importance of these very cognitive processes in the early development
of emotion regulation (as reviewed by Fox and Calkins, 2003), this suggests that
fostering children’s positive affect and positive appraisals of environmental de-
mands may support their cognitive regulatory development by avoiding sustained
HPA activation.
The potential for early exposure to positive affect to influence other bio-
logical systems, such as dopaminergic and oxytocinergic systems, the autonomic
nervous system, and neural development, provides many fascinating directions
for future research (see, for example, Isen, 2002; Ryff, Singer, Wing, & Love,
2001; Taylor et al., 2000, 2002). Prior research on emotions and biological de-
velopment has focused predominantly on negative experiences. Specifically, re-
search on animals and humans has demonstrated that early exposure to stress
and trauma can fundamentally alter the development of stress-regulatory systems
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 143

in the orbitofrontal cortex that provide the foundation for effective emotion reg-
ulation, and has enduring implications for autonomic, endocrine, and immune
functioning (Glaser, 2000; Repetti et al., 2002; Schore, 1996b). Yet we know lit-
tle about the extent to which early and regular exposure to positive emotional
experiences might not only blunt such negative effects, but have positive, growth-
promoting effects in its own right. This is an area that is ripe for future longitudinal

Links Between the Beneficial Effects of Positive Affect

and Attachment Security

Some of the most interesting developmental implications regarding positive

affect concern attachment security. Recall that attachment theory (reviewed by
Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003) maintains that through repeated interactions
with their caregivers, infants develop stable expectations about themselves and
others that come to organize affective experience, as well as the encoding, storage,
retrieval, and manipulation of affect-relevant information. Specifically, “secure”
infants are those with sensitive and responsive caregivers, who consistently expe-
rienced proximity to these caregivers as distress-alleviating. As a result, they come
to view themselves as competent and worthy of love and to view others as willing
and able to provide comfort and support. In contrast, “insecure” infants (both the
anxious and avoidant subtypes) did not receive consistently sensitive and respon-
sive caregiving and reliable distress-alleviation, and they tend to hold negatively
valenced views of self and others. These expectations act as filters for incoming
environmental information, such that secure individuals tend to appraise external
demands as manageable challenges rather than unmanageable threats, and they
show more adaptive patterns of coping and more effective regulation of stress and
negative emotions (reviewed in Diamond & Hicks, in press).
Such widely replicated effects are well-known within the attachment litera-
ture; what is new and more interesting is the direct and striking correspondence
between the specific social–cognitive processes associated with attachment secu-
rity (identified by Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003) and those associated with
positive affect: creative and flexible thinking, openness to new information, will-
ingness to revise beliefs, optimistic interpretations of ambiguous events, and use
of positive cognitions to counteract negative ones, among others. The parallelism
between these effects suggests that the immediate and long-term cognitive, social,
behavioral, and even health benefits associated with attachment security might
be partially mediated by positive emotions. This is consistent with the extensive
evidence that securely attached adults experience more positive emotions on a
day-to-day basis (reviewed in Diamond & Hicks, in press). From a developmental
perspective, one might argue that secure individuals’ more consistent experiences
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144 Diamond and Aspinwall

of positive emotions from infancy through adulthood might have lasting effects on
emotion-regulation and broader self-regulatory processes.
What is refreshing about this possibility is that it counterbalances the histor-
ical tendency in attachment research (like many other domains of psychological
research) to focus on what goes “wrong” with insecure individuals rather than what
goes “right” with secure individuals. Positive affectivity and its multiple functions
may be fundamental to understanding the latter. This is strongly suggested by
the research reviewed by Mikulincer et al. (2003) demonstrating that anxious and
avoidant individuals not only show maladaptive regulation of negative emotions,
but also fail to demonstrate the beneficial cognitive processing effects—more cre-
ative and flexible problem-solving—associated with positive emotion inductions
(Mikulincer & Sheffi, 2000). This is particularly interesting, given that there has
been much more developmental research on individual differences in the process-
ing and management of negative emotions (i.e., unusually aggressive or anxious
children) than positive emotions (i.e., unusually exuberant and joyful children).
Such findings also raise fascinating developmental questions, both with re-
spect to the origins of such individual differences and their long-term implications
across the life span. As noted earlier, interfamily differences in positive emotional
experience, expression, and emotion coaching likely play a role, perhaps com-
pounding the effects of sensitive and responsive caregiving that are central to the
development of attachment security during the 1st year of life. Notably, although
the effects of insensitive and unresponsive caregiving are most often conceptual-
ized with respect to infants’ sustained and unregulated experiences of distress, it is
important to consider the effects of such caregiving on infants’ positive emotional
experiences. Caregivers who are not attuned to their infants’ facial, verbal, and be-
havioral cues might fail to respond not only to signs of mounting distress, but also
to signs of mounting engagement, excitement, and interest. Thus, such caregivers
will fail to “catch” and build upon infants’ positive affective experiences.
On this point, Mikulincer et al. (2003) noted the importance of “transmuting
internalization” (Kohut, 1971) for the development of attachment-related regula-
tory functions during childhood and adolescence. Specifically, this process entails
“mirroring of affects and celebratory approval” (p. 22) which are gradually inter-
nalized so that the child can actively and independently deploy positive affect in
the service of self-regulation. Yet clearly, if the infant’s positive emotions are never
mirrored—and celebratory approval never shared—this process will undoubtedly
be compromised. Notably, Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall’s initial investi-
gation of caregiver characteristics associated with the development of insecure
attachment found that the mothers of avoidant infants were not only less toler-
ant of their infants’ bids for comfort, but less expressive of positive emotions in
general (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). This finding further supports
the notion that the broadening, building, exploration-promoting internal resources
facilitated by attachment security are critically informed by positive emotional
exchanges with the attachment figure, and that such experiences may have as
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 145

important implications for children’s socioemotional development as do sustained

negative affective experiences (reviewed in Repetti et al., 2002). Similar points
have been made by Emde and colleagues (Biringen, Robinson, & Emde, 1993;
Emde, 1980), who have characterized the optimal, emotionally available caregiver
as one who not only responds sensitively to distress, but also attends to and cap-
italizes on the child’s positive affect, engaging her emotionally without intruding
upon her autonomy.
The long-term implications of such processes are perhaps most evident when
one considers the mental and physical functioning of older individuals. As noted
earlier, the work on socioemotional selectivity reviewed by Carstensen, Fung, and
Charles (2003) has elegantly demonstrated that as older individuals begin to per-
ceive their time as more limited, they begin to prioritize emotionally positive and
meaningful experiences and relationships. One might consider whether this nor-
mative trajectory is altered among insecurely attached individuals who have, over
time, failed to benefit as consistently or as strongly from positive affect, particu-
larly positive affect associated with close relationships. Thus, one fascinating area
for future research concerns attachment-style differences in the degree to which
insecure individuals prioritize emotionally close relationships in order to heighten
positive and meaningful emotional experiences—for some, this strategy might not
have such beneficial emotional effects. Clearly, positive affect is an area in which
greater integration of the adult and infant/child literatures—and greater integra-
tion of multiple levels of analysis, from biological to cognitive to interpersonal
processes—has much to offer future research on the developmental origins and
life span implications of emotion- and self-regulation processes.



Finally, one additional focal area that offers promising directions for future
investigation concerns the ways in which links between self and other are con-
ceptualized with respect to emotion regulation. Much infant/child research on the
development of emotion regulation emphasizes the gradual transition between the
infant’s initial reliance on the caregiver for direct regulatory assistance (Spangler &
Grossman, 1993; Spangler, Schieche, Ilg, Maier, & Ackerman, 1994) and his/her
progressive internalization of emotion regulation (Calkins, Smith, Gill, & Johnson,
1998; Malatesta & Haviland, 1982; Thompson, 1994), bolstered by increasing mas-
tery of self-regulatory strategies such as attention shifting, active coping, or selec-
tive approach and avoidance (Derryberry & Rothbart, 1988; Kobak, Cole, Ferenz-
Gillies, Fleming, & Gamble, 1993; Rothbart, 1991). Long after this internalization
has been mastered, however, social partners continue to serve as external emotion
“regulators” over the life course, through diverse mechanisms such as comfort
and support provision, the communication of empathy, assistance with cognitive
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146 Diamond and Aspinwall

reframing, and even positive distraction (Magai, Cohen, Gomberg, Malatesta, &
Culver, 1996; Thoits, 1986; Thompson, 1994). Of course, as Mikulincer, Shaver,
and Pereg (2003) reviewed, not all individuals are psychologically equipped to
benefit from these interpersonally based forms of emotion regulation.
This conceptualization presumes intuitively meaningful boundaries between
regulatory processes that reside in the “self” versus those that reside in the “other.”
However, research increasingly suggests that such boundaries might be relatively
fluid, and that future developmental research should more closely attend to the
multiple bidirectional, co-regulatory processes that unfold in different contexts,
with different constraints, at different stages of life. This view is consistent with
Cantor’s emphasis on understanding personality processes with respect to “socially
embedded goals and behaviors” (Cantor, 2003, p. 55), a counterpoint to perspec-
tives that locate personality attributes squarely within the self, wholly independent
of social relationships and ongoing interpersonal exchanges. Similarly, Mikulincer
and Shaver (in press) have noted that certain aspects of self-representation actually
originate in the context of dyadic interactions with security-providing caregivers.
How, then, might our perspective on emotion regulation change if we treated
the dyad—rather than the individual—as the unit of analysis? This approach has
already been adopted by some researchers investigating the development of self-
regulation in infancy. Beebe and Lachmann (1998), for example, argue for a sys-
tems approach to infant–caregiver interactions in which the boundary between “in-
ner” and “outer” is reconsidered, and attention focuses on how “dyadic process may
(re-) organize both inner and relational processes, and reciprocally, how changes
in self-regulation in either partner may alter the interactive process” (p. 481). Fogel
(1992) has similarly emphasized that social behavior, communication, and emo-
tions do not reside “in” the infant, but are continuously constructed in the course
of direct interaction with the caregiver. In its most extreme form, of course, this
perspective suggests that all emotional and regulatory phenomena are fundamen-
tally dyadic, and cannot be meaningfully investigated at the individual level; we
do not take this approach, but rather wish to call attention to the strengths of sys-
tematically integrating individual level with dyadic analyses (of course, there are
also triadic and even larger group contexts to consider).
Interestingly, recent neurobiological research provides converging support
for a dyadic approach. The cascade of psychobiological effects of infant–caregiver
interactions—from experience-expectant and experience-dependent proliferation
and pruning of neural circuits (Schore, 1996a, 1996b) to endocrinological re-
sponses to stress and soothing (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998; Gunnar & Donzella,
2002)—suggests that especially in early stages of development, the infant–
caregiver dyad can be viewed as a mutually regulating psychobiological unit
(Schore, 2000). The extent to which this model also characterizes adults’ most
intimate and important relationships remains to be seen. Pipp and Harmon (1987)
speculated that “homeostatic regulation between members of a dyad is a stable as-
pect of all intimate relationships throughout the lifespan” (p. 651), and similarly,
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 147

Cacioppo (1994) argued that an individual’s overall patterns of cardiovascular and

neuroendocrine activity could be conceptualized as a function of his/her most im-
portant interpersonal relationship. Hofer (1984) made the provocative suggestion
that disruptions in mutual psychobiological regulation between adult romantic
partners might account for some of the negative physiological and psychological
effects of bereavement. Clearly, greater emphasis on emotion regulation from a
dyadic perspective has important implications for understanding the influence of
close relationships on long-term mental and physical health.
An emphasis on dyadic systems is also pertinent to cognitively mediated reg-
ulatory processes. For example, Pasupathi (2001) has demonstrated how memories
for personal events and experiences are coconstructed through the process of re-
counting such events to different types of listeners, who provide different types of
implicit and explicit feedback with their verbal and nonverbal reactions. Similarly,
research on coping with everyday problems as well as with major stressors such as
chronic illness suggests that one fundamental (but often uninvestigated and invis-
ible) aspect of this process is the extent to which a problem is appraised as shared
with important social others and the extent to which problem solving proceeds
individually versus collaboratively (Berg et al., 2002; Berg, Johnson, Meegan, &
Strough, 2003; Berg, Meegan, & Deviney, 1998). Thus, whereas the majority of
coping and problem-solving research assumes that “coping opportunities” reside
in the individual, and that other individuals are primarily relevant as sources of
external information or support, this may mischaracterize the inherently dyadic
nature of much problem solving. One of the strengths of Berg and colleagues’
approach is its heightened sensitivity to the interpersonal and situational contexts
in which both day-to-day stressors and major life challenges (such as chronic dis-
ease) are appraised and managed, and its attention to the dynamic interpersonal
processes through which individuals’ cognition and behaviors change across spe-
cific coping episodes and across individuals’ interconnected life spans. Another
example of this approach is provided by Aron and Aron (1997), who posited that
a critical component of intimate relationships is the inclusion of one’s partner’s
“self”—including his or her needs, resources, and strengths—in one’s own sense of
self, which promotes a beneficial and gratifying sense of expansion and increased
mastery. Such approaches provide an important counterpoint to traditional views
of personality, cognition, emotion, and behavior that posit the self as the primary
regulatory agent and that fail to adequately account for the socially embedded
nature of both major and minor regulatory demands.

Dyadic Experience as an End to Itself

One interesting possibility arising from greater emphasis on dyadic regula-

tory processes is that such processes may not only facilitate the achievement of
certain individual and shared goals (such as problem solving or the development
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148 Diamond and Aspinwall

of social competence), but may be rewarding in and of themselves. Tronick et al.

(1998), for example, argued that the historical emphasis on the developmental
benefits associated with secure attachment relationships (specifically, the facil-
itation of exploratory behavior) has overshadowed the extent to which “dyadic
states of consciousness,” in which emotional meaning is collaboratively created
and communicated between social partners, are rewarding in and of themselves,
and promote psychological growth and an expanded sense of self at all stages
of life. This is consistent with Carstensen, Fung, and Charles’ emphasis on the
seeking of emotionally meaningful relationships for their own sake. It is also no-
table that Tronick et al.’s emphasis on the expansive and growth-promoting effects
of dyadic states of consciousness parallels the “broadening and building” effects
that Fredrickson attributes to positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson &
Joiner, 2002; see also Isen, 1993, for a review), Aron and Aron’s notion of intimate
relationships as a route to self-expansion (Aron and Aron, 1997), and Staudinger
and Baltes’ notion of “interactive minds” (Staudinger and Baltes, 1996).
This perspective suggests that some of the instrinsically rewarding aspects
of dyadic coregulation may be mediated by positive emotion; however, Tronick
and colleagues point out that meaningful dyadic experiences are not uniformly
positive—nor do they involve precise and unwavering attunement of emotional
states. Rather, their importance and meaning is contained in the process of recip-
rocally “repairing” negative emotional states and flexibly transitioning between
moments of self-regulation and moments of interactive regulation. Thus, the goal
is not complete entrainment of state and behavior, but rather what Beebe and
Lachmann (1998) refer to as “midrange” coordination, in which “interactive cou-
pling is present but not obligatory, and self-regulation is preserved but not exces-
sive” (Beebe & Lachmann, 1998, p. 485). Notably, Beebe and Lachmann review
data demonstrating that this midrange level of infant/caregiver collaboration pre-
dicts attachment security at 1 year of age. The avoidant form of insecurity is charac-
terized by excessive self-regulation, whereas the anxious form is characterized by
excessive reliance on interactive regulation. Thus, the overall developmental goal
with respect to emotion regulation and self-regulation might not be total internaliza-
tion of regulatory skills, but the maintenance of a flexible capacity for transitioning
between self-regulation and interactive regulation as needed, given the character-
istics of the situation and the (important but underinvestigated) emotion-regulation
and self-regulatory capacities, needs, and goals of one’s interaction partners.
This view is consistent with Mikulincer, Shaver, and Pereg’s conceptualiza-
tion of security-based strategies for affect regulation, which entail “diverse, refined,
flexible, and reality-attuned ways of displaying distress and turning to others for
support” (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003, pp. 77–102). In their model, ef-
fective self-regulation is only possible after the developmental achievement of
flexible and reciprocal co-regulation, which fosters “the broadening of a person’s
perspective and capacities, expansion of the self, and internalization of functions
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Emotion Regulation Across the Life Span 149

that were originally accomplished by attachment figures” (pp. 77–102). Thus, one
fascinating direction for future developmental research is to integrate this type
of dyadic perspective with the more individually based investigations of cogni-
tive and attentional processes involved in emotion regulation. Another interesting
question concerns developmental transitions between different types of emotion-
ally primary dyads. For example, how might adolescents’ emotion-regulation and
self-regulatory processes change as they gradually transfer attachment functions
from parents to romantic partners (Hazan & Zeifman, 1994)? Finally, might the
later-life prioritization of emotionally meaningful relationships documented by
Carstensen, Fung, and Charles (2003) be accompanied by a corresponding shift
from predominant self-regulation to greater co-regulation? How might individual
differences in temperament or attachment style shape such developmental trajec-
tories? We look forward to future investigations of such issues.


The very phrase emotion regulation seems to imply effortful striving toward
a homeostatic set point—some pleasant, not-too-distracting state that allows an
individual to bring his or her full attention to bear on the task at hand. Obviously,
this is a limited conceptualization that does not fully account for the multiple
ways that emotions shape, serve, influence, and are influenced by goal-relevant
behaviors and cognitions within different contexts and at different stages of life.
We have tried to highlight how future theory and research on emotion regulation
might benefit from greater attention to (a) multilevel life span analyses that con-
sider interactions and bidirectional influences among developmental trajectories
for biological, cognitive, affective, behavioral, and social processes; (b) consid-
ering emotion regulation in the broader context of self-regulatory processes that
emphasize the changing goal contexts of emotional phenomena; (c) the life span
developmental significance of positive affect, and the interplay between positive
and negative affect, with respect to emotion-regulation and self-regulatory pro-
cesses; and (d) dyadic processes of emotion regulation that go beyond the study
of emotion socialization in children and support seeking in adults to consider the
socially embedded nature of goals and affective experiences across the life course.
From our perspective, optimal emotion regulation is not a developmental task
to be mastered at a certain age (after which attention turns to the psychological and
behavioral implications of one’s relative success or failure at this task), but rather
a “moving target” that is continually sensitive to changing goals and contexts.
The optimal developmental outcome, therefore, is not maintenance of a stable
set point, but rather an enduring capacity for flexibility and change—in one’s
goals, one’s affective states, one’s use of different cognitive, behavioral, and social
strategies, and one’s reliance on intrapsychic versus interpersonal processes. We
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150 Diamond and Aspinwall

believe this approach stimulates new and potentially interesting questions about
the development and expression of this flexible capacity at different stages of the
life course, its implications for mental and physical health, and the degree to which
it is represented in individuals’ own “meta–emotion-cognition.” The contributors
to this two-part special issue have already pointed the way toward such provocative
investigations, and we expect that future research in this vein will both challenge
and enhance our understanding of the multiple underpinnings, effects, and contexts
of emotion-regulation processes across the life course.


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