Is this our destiny?
In my late 30’s/early 40’s, a discussion question posed to my singing group was, “How would you describe yourself; as wind, water, earth or fire?” Next, we were encouraged to ask our partners, or someone who knew us well, how they would describe us? My friends all defined me as ‘water,’ while I was not convinced. I believed myself to be ‘fire,’ to their surprise. Before I could even finish posing the question to my husband, he replied, without hesitation, “Fire.”
A saying has been passed down through generations of my husband’s family that “as you get older, you don’t change, you just get ‘more so.’ We revisit this thought at times when it seems older friends and family members are becoming more extreme in their views on just about everything. Contrarily, I believe myself to be much more tolerant, even-tempered, logical, and less quick to judge than in my youth. My ability to learn from my mistakes is possibly what I like best about myself. Today, in my 50’s, I truly believe myself to be less ‘fire’ and more ‘water’. I believe I have changed for the better but apparently, I am not alone in this personality change.
As reported in this BBC Future article, a research team from the University of Edinburgh reported that our personalities exhibit progressively positive changes by the time we reach our 70’s and 80’s. It’s an interesting article including anecdotes from Ronald Reagan and studies dating back to 1932. I will be severely paraphrasing so be sure to read the full article for the details if you are interested. In summary, between our 30’s and 70’s, we gradually become:
- More conscientious
- more trusting
- more willpower
- have better sense of humor
- more emotional control
- and overall nicer and less neurotic (I’m particularly fond of this last one.)
Hooray! Positive things associated with aging and things that are consistent worldwide, across all cultures and good for the health. However, there is more to this story. Even though our personalities shift in a positive direction as we age, they remain relatively constant. In other words, “the most neurotic 11-year-olds are generally still the most neurotic 81-year-olds.” (My bubble deflating slightly). Furthermore, there is a reverse shift that occurs between late 70’s and 90’s. This is completely understandable to me. I remember listening while my mother-in-law read the obituaries. She had outlived all her friends and yes, she was very grumpy about it. Once, our youngest won a state-wide photography contest with a close up of her face. As a winner, it traveled all around the state to be seen by LOTS of people. She was horrified. We took her to see it while on display in our town. As soon as she caught a glimpse of it, she started grumbling, “I look 108 years-old! (She was in her 80s) People are staring! What must they be thinking?” My response, “They’re probably thinking you look pretty good for 108.”
In my personal experience, there seems to be another positive shift in centenarians. People I’ve met in their late 90s and 100’s have all been so happy, gentle and kind, often taking no medication, and generally don’t look a day over 75. Maybe they’ve just outlived all the curmudgeons or maybe it’s their impeccable health that has kept them alive so long? When I’ve asked how they stay so young and healthy, the replies ranged from homegrown fruits and vegetables, never drank alcohol or smoked, to hard work and prayer. And when questioned about their lack of wrinkles, the replies ranged from Vaseline, Dove soap, Ponds and Oil of Olay. Those conversations always brought a smile to my face as I thought to myself, they must have great genes!
The good news is even though data seems to suggest we might be genetically hard-wired to mature as we age, the rate at which we mature is still flexible. It’s good to know all the self-reflection and awareness training has not gone to waste. I’m willing to bet the stereotypical ‘grumpy old curmudgeon’ did not devote much time to the self-improvement section in the book store. We can do this. Just say, “No” to becoming the grumpy old curmudgeon.