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Why Is It Harder to Change Our Bad Habits as We Get Older?

We're wiser and more emotionally stable — but that doesn't mean we magically become less of a piece of shit

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe old dogs don’t need to be taught anything. Maybe our worst habits will just phase themselves out as we get older, the same way our cognitive abilities begin to sputter to a halt.

It’s a nice idea, at least the part about the bad habits.

There’s an essay I can’t stop thinking about. It’s written by a 45-year-old who laments that she’s still as shy and introverted as ever, when she doesn’t think she should be at her age. It had me wondering, why do we believe we’ll just get better with age? Are our least likable traits supposed to fall by the wayside? Is wisdom automatically conferred by mere virtue of living out your life? Is that just naïve, wishful thinking? Don’t we have to actually make an effort to be a better person and shit?

In the essay, the writer, Claudia (a pseudonym), recounts a lifetime of crippling shyness that won’t budge, despite her best efforts and increasing wisdom. She’s canceled interviews out of severe anxiety; she’s hidden from coworkers rather than make even simple small talk. As successfully as she can perform the personality of an extraverted person for a spell, the shy retiring woman inside her persists and rears its ugly head eventually.

I can sort of relate. If anything, it feels like we become more pathologically ourselves as we get older. Lots of Olds (that is, over 28) relish the fact that we’re suddenly far more confident in our opinions. Science finds that our frontal lobes change in such a way as we get older that we start to lose inhibition, and more comically, without even really realizing it. This is why you get the rude old person who says whatever they think and doesn’t know, or mind, why everyone is all upset.

I do that. But also, the older I get, the more I find certain bad behaviors unacceptable in anyone over, say, 35, because I expect people to better understand what’s right and wrong, or appropriate and not. Shouldn’t adults be able to control their tempers? Balance a checkbook? Save some money? Resolve conflict peacefully? Stop smoking?

I apply this same disappointment to myself, for what it’s worth: If I decide to exercise more, eat better or express my feelings more tactfully, shouldn’t I just… be able to by now? After all, I’ve lived this whole life; I’ve read the books; seen all the cautionary tales. Shouldn’t this just sort of fall into place?

Why isn’t bulletproof willpower the older person’s superpower? Because it doesn’t really work like that.

Research suggests that we are who we are by the time we’re 30. Our “big five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — are what a psychologist named William James said way back in 1890 are “half plastered” by the time we hit the big 3-0, i.e., pretty much locked into place. Other research on identical twins finds that this stuff is probably inherited, too, and that it’s fairly constant throughout our lives.

In other words, it’s ridiculous to think that we become the most evolved transcendent version of ourselves by the time we kick the bucket, just because we spent that long being alive.

But that doesn’t mean nothing changes by itself over time or that no good comes from it. Brain scans show that the older we get, the more emotionally stable we become, and we do, in fact, start to mellow out. This is how your hard-ass strict dad becomes a terrific, doting grandfather later in life. People also get happier when they get older overall, generally speaking, which also leads to greater overall chill.

What’s also true is that a lot of stuff happens to us as we get older that presents a perfect opportunity to work in some active changing if we simply recognize the opportunity when it comes: Marriages happen. Children are conjured. Parents get older, sick, or pass away. Marriages fail. Career trajectories shift.

Because of these huge environmental forces, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have the opportunity to change if they want to, it just takes a lot more effort, and takes a lot more time. We do become more mature and learn from our mistakes, or at least get too old to make them as disastrously as we might’ve before: This is why most people over 30 can easily see that drinking on a weeknight is a recipe for the next workday’s disaster. It’s why many older people can refrain from blowing that paycheck because they know there are bills to pay at month’s end, and whereas fun used to overshadow consequences, now they flash in the mind’s eye like a giant neon sign of warning.

Foresight is real and sharpens even as your actual, literal eyesight starts to blur. In Claudia’s essay about her crippling shyness, she mentions at the end that she’s so far been on a three-month commitment to kicking this terrible habit, and seems to be working. She actually participates in office banter. She goes out to drinks with coworkers.

So maybe when we say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s not necessarily being old that’s the problem, because it’s far more locked in by 30 than we ever realize. We should amend that to say: You can’t teach anyone over 30 to stop being pathologically themselves. People gonna people, and 30-year-olds gonna 30-year-old. But you can still change — if you want. In reality, you’re more likely to just get tired of the aspects of yourself you don’t like as you get older, and if for no other reason, you will finally have the free time, maturity and general foresight to finally do something about it.

That said, if you can knock it out before then, you’ll be saving yourself and everyone you know a lot of misery.