You’re alluding to an unkind stereotype of older people, but does it have any truth to it? In personality terms, the evidence shows that, on average, the older we get, the more closed-minded we tend to become. We are less willing to see alternative perspectives or explore new experiences.

Do we get more bitter and cynical as we get older? © Dan Bright
© Dan Bright

Importantly, however, another way that our personalities tend to mature in old age is that our neuroticism decreases and our agreeability increases. That is, older people tend to be calmer, warmer, friendlier and more trusting than they were when they were younger – which is hardly consistent with the stereotype of an ageing curmudgeon. In fact, a Swiss study of people over 80 years old noted their remarkable composure and nonchalance toward old age – a trait the researchers called ‘senior coolness’.

Another perspective comes from the Danish-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose eight-stage theory of life development described the final stage – from roughly 65 years old and upwards – as a psychological battle between integrity and despair.

If older people view their lives with disappointment and regret, he said, then despair will win, thus fuelling bitterness. In contrast, older people who recognise they did the best they could and see their lives with acceptance and a sense of meaning, then they avoid bitterness and get to enjoy feelings of wisdom instead.

Maybe that’s the ‘coolness’ the Swiss researchers observed!

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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.