Becoming set in our ways - The Explorer: Voices

Becoming set in our ways

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Posted: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:22 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Research studies of personality development typically focus on traits predictably confirming that openness increases during a person's 20s, and then gradually declines until about age 60, when one's mind becomes challenging to pry open.

Young people in search of themselves often abandon everything — family, friends, career and most material possessions while surviving for extended periods in self-inflicted circumstances and places they'd be challenged to locate on a map with the intent of personal discovery. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health theorize that personality traits change during young adulthood because that's when people are assuming new roles and most open to new experiences; those older are more settled and set in their ways. Adolescents fantasize about becoming adventurers rather than following the path of a parent or grandparent who spent decades working at one job and company. With aging the fascination of living nomadically declines and resistance to change intensifies.

Many retirees new to the tacit life of leisure often reach a crossroads. Some 60-plus retirees become more open, conceivably because their essential responsibilities such as raising a family and completing a career are accomplished. Others lose their craving for novelty as they age. The current generation of 60-somethings has a more diverse perspective on life than their predecessors.

People age 30-plus want something new, whatever that may be, yet often feel incapable or averse to making necessary fundamental changes in their lifestyles. Researchers link this paradox to inherent demands of adulthood and unrealistic expectations of the rambunctious inner child. Change is commonly more challenging than we presume. Another associated dilemma is that people routinely become consistent and contented with age, and their openness to novelty diminishes.

A University of Oregon study found that openness increased modestly until age 30, then declined in both sexes for the remainder of their lives. As openness declines gradually over time, novelty becomes less stimulating, and the world beyond one's comfortable, private domain loses allure. This change arises in nearly everyone at some point. But not everyone reaches the same level of openness or closure in later life, if at all.

After retirement, new experiences offer innovation and awakening, but also chaos and insecurity. People dream of novelty but grasp the reliable and familiar. Time confirms that most people become creatures of habit. We sit at the same table and order the same meals at restaurants, travel to favored destinations and become accustomed to a daily routine. Conversely, our brain is constantly attempting to streamline things and establish habits that equate with feelings of pleasure. Clutching the tried and true reinforces a feeling of security, safety, and competence while concomitantly reducing our fear of the future and the inevitability of it.

Interestingly, negative events often produce positive results, according to sociology research. Many divorcees and widows / widowers restart their lives and develop dormant talents. Cancer patients redefine themselves as a result of the disease often conquering the illness in the process. Survivors of catastrophic occurrences routinely discover inner strengths. But drawing comprehensive conclusions from these examples is problematical say many psychologists. Older people report minor life changes due to major life experiences.

A University of Toronto Mississauga experiment asked people of varying ages to vividly articulate three self-defining memories. A broad range of experiences were recorded such as the death of a spouse or relative, career issues, and unanticipated geographical relocations. Younger people anticipated external changes with expectations leading to personal discovery and lifelong transformation; the opposite finding was confirmed for older people.

These variances aren't coincidental according to psychological researchers. Personality traits change more often and easier during adolescence than at any other time of life. Surprisingly, profound life events such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, acknowledged as stressful, rarely result in extreme, long-term personality changes. Life's mid years are customarily a time of reflection and reevaluation, and surprisingly few people experience a genuine "midlife crisis" which contradicts this broad assumption. After age 60, life changes are daunting; we find a comfort zone and intend to stay in it. Research confirms that those seeking significant changes later in life rarely achieve even minor corrections or redirections. This tracks with the reason many smokers say they could quit any time, but rarely do so. Psychologists label this phenomenon the false hope syndrome. This also applies to overeaters who say they can lose weight any time by simply intensifying exercise. The false hope syndrome lures people into attempting to overhaul their entire lives in one fell swoop. But overzealous, spontaneous, unplanned endeavors involving too much too fast are doomed to failure. The cure for the false hope syndrome is setting realistic goals and recognizing that achieving them will be challenging, especially if you're beyond age 30.

When was the last time you attempted to appreciate the person that you are today? Sometimes getting what we think we want doesn't turn out to be what we wanted at all, or in other words be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

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