For some of us the New Year was the time to reflect on past experiences, and to consider what we have learned from them. Have we become wiser or more mature? Have these lessons helped us to live the rest of our lives as better and happier individuals? Many of us would like to think so, but what does it actually mean to be ‘more mature’, and does wisdom really come with age?
Psychology offers various views on personal maturity. Some researchers understand it as personal growth, i.e. the development of our personality as we acquire deeper knowledge of ourselves, connect to others, and become more able to express ourselves.
How much can our personality change as we mature? McAdams (1996) proposes that there are different levels in personality: dispositional traits, personal concerns and self-concepts. The main traits of our personality consist of five broad dimensions: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. For example, some of us are extraverts, others – introverts, we also differ in our degree of conscientiousness. The second level of personality includes our goals, life tasks, motivations and plans. Finally, our identity, or how we see ourselves and our past, present and future form the third tier of personality. These basic traits do not tend to change. However, our personal concerns and goals do, depending on where we are in life.
Research by Sheldon and Kasser (2001) showed that as we mature we set ourselves goals that better fulfill our psychological needs, i.e. the need for self-acceptance, to further develop connections with others that are close to us, and to contribute to the community. These new goals replace those with external motivations, such as popularity or financial status. Moreover, we learn to pursue these goals because we truly believe in their value, rather due to the pressures of our societies or cultures.
Maturity can also be defined as becoming more adept at regulating our emotions and to experience more positive feelings, which in turn is related to finding meaning in life. All of us regulate our emotions by influencing the way we feel about other people or events, e.g. cheering ourselves up by giving ourselves a treat when we feel low, or calming ourselves down when we get anxious. Better regulation of our emotions also helps us to achieve goals, by protecting us from becoming easily discouraged. Whilst maturity does not have to correlate with chronological age, it seems that older people focus more on interactions with people who are emotionally close to them, and prefer not to spend their energy on wider social networks of acquaintances (Carstensen, Fung and Charles, 2003). They also experience fewer negative emotions than younger people, with such changes thought to result from different coping strategies. Younger people put more effort into solving their problems, which can benefit them in the long term. Their elders, in turn, might instead try to change the way they feel about the situations, for example by focusing more on positive experiences, and selectively remembering more positive memories.
The evidence would therefore suggest that we do indeed become happier as we mature: we stick to our own values, get better at fulfilling our psychological needs, get more control over our emotions, and learn that worrying about the opinions or approval of others does not give us the satisfaction that we crave. Something that we can all look forward to as we continue to age.
Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek
McAdams, D.P. (1996) Personality, modernity and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry 7:295-321
Carstensen, L.L., Fung, H. H. and Charles, S.T. (2003) Socioemotional Selectivity Theory and the Regulation of Emotion in the Second Half of Life. Motivation and Emotion 27 (2):103-123 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1024569803230#page-2
Sheldon, K.M. and Kasser, T. (2001) Getting Older, Getting Better? Personal Strivings and Psychological Maturity Across the Life Span. Developmental Psychology 37(4): 491-501 http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/37/4/491/