Why Change Is Harder As We Age
The reality is, change is going to happen—and needs to happen—in order for us to grow. How we relate to change helps determine our health and well-being. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
What conditions allow and motivate us to embrace change and what makes us resistant to it? Are some people more open to change than others? According to the research summarized in Nikolas Westerhoff’s article, “Set in Our Ways: Why Change is so Hard,” published in the December 2008 issue of Scientific American, there are several predominant factors that affect our relationship to change.
Westerhoff states that we become less receptive to change as we age. “Psychologists have long identified openness to new experiences as one of the Big Five personality traits, which also include extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Considerable disagreement exists about how much these personality traits change after age thirty, but most research suggests that openness declines in adulthood.” According to research conducted cross-culturally by the National Institute of Health, our twenties are typically the time we seek change as part of our personality and identity development. After thirty, stability becomes more important, especially as people get married, pursue a career, and start families. He argues that though people may seek change and yearn for something new as they grow older (or get inspired by hopeful, transformative rhetoric) they actually become more reluctant to invite change into their lives.
Writes Westerhoff, “Although people typically [lose] their appetite for novelty as they age, many continue to claim a passion for it …Yet even as people older than thirty yearn for what is new, many find themselves unable or unwilling to make fundamental changes in their lives. Researchers say this paradox can be largely explained by the demands of adult responsibilities and that unrealistic expectations may also play a part in thwarting our best intentions. Change is rarely as easy as we think it will be.”
Openness as a Genetic Trait
There is also sufficient evidence supporting the idea that people are born with varying degrees of openness. According to longitudinal studies conducted by psychologist Richard W. Robins at the University of California, Davis, “Children who are less open to new experiences than their peers are will continue in adulthood to cleave to the conventional more than their more adventurous childhood friends will.” Children as early as pre-school age will show different levels of openness to changing their environment and different levels of flexibility and comfort to changing stimuli.
Difficult Life Changes
What about when negative events happen unwillingly to us? Sometimes good can come out of difficult life transitions, like the death of a loved one, divorce, health crises, or even major natural catastrophes. More often than not, it’s our attitude toward that change that determines our relationship to it and subsequent possibility for growth. And again, age can play a factor in our attitude. Psychologist Kate C. McLean from the University of Toronto, Mississauga conducted a study that asked volunteers of all ages to describe self-defining moments. People across the spectrum of age reported both positive and negative life experiences as catalysts for change, but “For younger people, external changes were more likely to lead to internal transformation … that was not the case for older individuals.”
But what about if you, like me, are in your thirties or beyond and don’t yet have those sorts of commitments? Westerhoff’s article resonated with me because I have found myself resistant to that sense of instability that comes with starting over, especially because there is that part of me that’s seeking a life partner. However, because I still have certain freedoms, now might be the perfect moment to try something new.
Let me share two lessons I learned when contemplating change:
1. Consider the variables
Think about the advantages and disadvantages of a big life change from both a short-term as well as a long-term perspective. With the decision to change my life by returning to graduate school, for example, I would have a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world in a year’s time, but I would also be doubling my debt to a size very disproportionate to my income. Making the decision to either reapply once I paid down my debt (as well as taking the time to apply for grants and scholarships), or finding another way to manifest my goals seemed like the decision that truly honored me the most.
2. Talk to others—with discretion
Ask for the advice and opinions of others, but limit that group of people to those you know well and trust. There was a car insurance commercial that was running about the same time as I was in my discernment process, and in the commercial a woman is asking everyone—from the gas station attendant to the waitress—what type of insurance she should invest in. Months later, when my mom hoped it was safe, she casually mentioned that the commercial reminded her of me during some of my decision-making processes in the last year.
I learned that if you have a big decision to make, it’s important to take the time to get grounded in your own truth. Check in with your body. Journal, meditate, take long walks. Trust yourself—your own gut, instincts, and thought processes. Choose a few people whose wisdom or approach to life you find inspiring or influential, but don’t give your power away. No one can make the decision to accept or deny change in your life but you—and deep down you wouldn’t want it any other way.
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