“When you grow up, your heart dies.” That line from The Breakfast Club is so painfully true, it shatters me every time. The good news is that you can grow a new, improved one if you’re up for it. As we mature we learn hard truths about the world, and ourselves, our innocence shatters, and we feel betrayed by all the lies and misunderstandings we had as a child. We see how ruthless people can be, and how devastating hard it is to live your dreams or find any little scrap of happiness. Growing cold and bitter can seem like a perfectly reasonable response of a sensitive creature to a cruel world.
We all know grumpy older people, and may even feel that we are becoming one ourselves, but in reality it may actually be younger people, teenagers and twentysomethings, who struggle the most with blaming their problems on others, and having sour worldviews. I was definitely one of those kids, and I would commiserate with other sullen youths about the awful state of the world and how our talents were going to be wasted and overlooked. We felt old before our time. But as I get older (I’m 31 now,) I realize how misguided that sort of outlook really is. It seems, at least to me, that “old soul” pessimism is mostly an affliction of the young. As I get older I still want to retain youthful qualities like curiosity and wonder (and also a bit of of youthful facial qualities to be honest,) but I am done with youthful anger at the world.
Once you dig into a bit, it’s really more of an anger at the self for not measuring up. Your mind is so quick when you are young, and your body so beautiful, but there is an incompleteness in you, and it’s frustrating. Success doesn’t come as quickly as we’d like to, or either it comes too quick and we find it to not be enough. “That was too easy. I’m bored,” I remember thinking about minor successes like getting an A on a hastily written paper. Easy achievements felt too slick, sliding past me without meaning, and the other things I wanted seemed locked inside an iron prison on the other side of the world. One minute I was smug and the next minute I was comparing myself to someone my age who had accomplished so much more, and hating myself for it. It’s like when we at the start of adulthood we look grown, we feel grown, we have legal rights, but we are still experiencing massive internal growing pains.
Politics is an easy framework to direct all this angst and frustration. Wherever you fit in the political spectrum, youth is your time to full believe in your own political expertise. Once you are old enough to be excited about politics, the allure of the team spirit, us-vs-them mentality is overwhelming. You want to believe in something, you want to do some good in this world, and you are just becoming aware of how much bad there is. You are forming your sense of morality and identity and you naturally drift one way or the other, or many an alternative way, and the leaders are there to line out for you in black-in-white exactly who to blame. Not everyone gets armchair political hobbies, but we all, in a mad-grab to figure out who we are and explain all the horror both inside and outside of ourselves, need villains to channel our pessimism through. And we also need a steady supply of heroes and heroines, maybe anti-heroes if you were a black-cloud youth like me who was drawn to older adults who validated my grumpiness. Some of these heroes are genuinely as miserable and fatalistic as we imagine they are, but as I get older I realize that we often view people and their words and behavior and work through an expectation filter. We look for the things we want to hear and know about the person, and ignore other, more complicated aspects.
The world is still a horrific place for me, but maybe because I’ve grown some tougher skin and acquired a bit of wisdom, but it’s not something for me to constantly fret over. It’s not that I’m an optimist exactly, but I’ve given up pessimism as a lens through which to view my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I find all around me new heroines and heroes and rediscover many of the same ones I once had in a different way. I see people of all ages exhibit a sense of wonder and appreciation for life.
In my anecdotal experience, I find that most people mellow out with age, and although aging often makes it hard to accept the latest youth culture, people seem to get less judgmental about tastes, behavior, and life choices of others. When you’re 20 years old and someone likes music you think sucks, you often categorize them and judge them on some core level, which is ridiculous because music is such a subjective and personal thing. Music helps us through the most difficult times in life, and certain songs and musical styles can have such poignant meaning to a person, it’s ridiculous to judge them over what they like. When I was younger I was pretty harsh on people about their tastes in music, books, movies, TV, etc. and at the same time I was terrified that someone else would judge me just as harshly for my tastes. Now I just don’t care. I like what I like, and other people like what they like.
Annoying behavior doesn’t get less annoying, and poor life decisions don’t get any less devastating, but if we let ourselves, we start to learn a deeper sense of compassion for the person with the offending behavior. Often we also learn more about setting up personal boundaries for ourselves that can prevent us from getting too entangled in the negative feelings other people may knowingly or unknowingly generate in us.
There have been multiple recent studies examining how we mature as we get older, and the findings indicate that a positive change in personality happens to most of us as we age, and we can even help speed it up if we’re looking for it.
From The Wall Street Journal:
From the ages of 20 to 65, people report increases in positive traits, such as conscientiousness, and decreases in negative traits, such as neuroticism. Most people tend to become more agreeable, more responsible, more emotionally stable—in other words, their personalities improve. Psychologists call it the Maturity Principle.
Interestingly enough, in an Australian study from 2005-09 they found that people who were the most happy at the beginning of the study became not only more emotionally stable and agreeable, but also more introverted after four years. This is particularly interesting for me because the cultural bias, at least in my experience, is that extroversion is considered more of a “happy” persuasion. Maybe part of this finding is due to introverts feeling more comfortable with themselves as they are, and trying less to pretend to be extroverted. I do find that sometimes I can present more as extroverted when I feel a bit unstable and am looking for attention and recognition. On the other hand I can present as more extroverted when I am completely relaxed with myself and feel emotionally open, but it’s not because I feel pressure to do some. That is probably due more to me not feeling shy or embarrassed than to actually being extroverted.
The most beneficial information from these studies is the affirmation that we can change the negative aspects of our personality over time. If we are argumentative and blame others for our problems, this can cause major problems in our lives. When we are able to see that our negative attitudes and behavior is affecting how other people respond to us, and the stories we tell ourselves in our heads, we can consciously make decisions to change. According to the study, profound change in a personality takes time, but it has to start somewhere, and it has to start small and with a bit of self awareness. This isn’t exactly stuff we didn’t know, but it validates millennia old wisdom, and decades old psychological advice.Of course, not all people get happier. Some people are staunchly determined to hold onto their bitterness, and tend to end up squarely in the curmudgeon stereotype, and others may experience unimaginably horrible life blows that are practically impossible to recover from with any sense of hope and joyousness, but it seems like for the most part there is a path there towards better emotional stability and most of us can take it if we choose to.