If You’re Getting Older, You May Be Getting Nicer

We tend to encounter four images of “old people”—two for women, two for men.

The first female image? A kindly grandmother, rather plump, with gray hair pulled back in a bun and a sweet smile on her face. She’s often wearing an apron, as though she just stepped away from baking a batch of cookies. Just look at a display of Hallmark Mother’s Day cards to see some examples. But I don’t see any women resembling this image in my own life. The older women I know tend to be energetic, not very plump, and rarely sporting kitchen aprons.

The second female image is an emaciated crone, with spiky too-dark hair and an angry look on her face. This image turns up as a witch in fairy tales, often borrowed by Hollywood films and omnipresent on Halloween.

The first male image? A sweet old duffer, kind-hearted, not too sharp mentally, hovering over his kids and grandkids whether they want him to or not. Are there men like this out there? Maybe, but I don’t know any. My older male friends are vigorous, sharp as a tack, and involved with their kids sans hovering.

The second male image is a fierce, belligerent guy, his face contorted by rage and/or confusion. To others, he may appear to be well on the road to dementia, imagined or real.

I take issue with these images, especially the angry ones. The truth is that we get nicer as we get older. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal in April 2014, several large research studies have recently shown that a person’s personality naturally changes during adulthood in response to life events. And positive events, like entering a committed relationship, can lead to positive personality changes.

In one study, people reported noticing increases in their positive traits between the ages of 20 and 65. Significantly, they became more agreeable. This study backed up other research by psychologists, who refer to it as “the maturity principle.” Brent W. Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has pulled together some of this research. One finding he’s highlighted is that personality traits continue to change in middle and old age. Specifically, people become more conscientious and emotionally stable as they age.

It’s no secret that friendly, outgoing, responsible people tend to be happier than shy, irresponsible, unsociable people. That’s been known for years. But here’s a new twist, described in the Journal of Personality in January 2014: people who start out being happy tend to become even more so.

Researchers think that “personality” (characteristic ways of thinking feeling and behaving) is about 50% innate and 50% learned. So while many of us may start out being happy and some may become even more so, others can learn to be happier.

Now let’s go back to those angry images. Looking angry doesn’t always relate to feeling angry. Believe it or not, gravity plays a role. If you peruse a bunch of older faces, you’ll notice that the mouth, pulled downward by gravity, can make a person look angry or, at the very least, bored. But guess what. Smiling can erase the effects of gravity. A cheerful smile can transform an older person’s face. By smiling, he or she can suddenly look less angry and, well, younger.

Like the maturity principle, the “facial feedback hypothesis” has been around for a while. It’s a psychological theory that facial expressions can directly influence emotions. In other words, if you’re forced to smile during a social event, the theory holds that you’ll find the event more enjoyable. Charles Darwin was among the first to suggest that physiological changes (such as a smile caused by feeling happy) was not merely the consequence of being happy but also could intensify the feeling of happiness.

Recent studies by psychologists validate this notion and actually go even further. Forcing participants to smile, even when they weren’t feeling especially happy when they began the study, made them feel happier once they smiled.

The “mouth-down” phenomenon may account for the popularity of Botox and fillers injected into the faces of oldsters who want to look younger. A dermatologist in Maryland has in fact studied Botox as a treatment for clinical depression. After looking through 19th-century photos of stony-faced women institutionalized in a French hospital, Dr. Eric Finzi wondered whether the facial feedback hypothesis applied to patients who were depressed. He funded and oversaw two clinical trials studying Botox in people with depression. In the most recent study, he found that six weeks after treatment, 50% of the patients receiving Botox had their depressive symptoms reduced by half or more, compared to only 15% who were injected with a placebo. This remarkable finding demonstrates the power of a smiley face.

Life can be tough. We may face obstacles in our careers, financial challenges, rough patches in our relationships, serious illness, and worst of all, the loss of loved ones. But even though you might not always feel like smiling, you needn’t resort to Botox. The latest research leads to some simple advice: Try smiling. It just might make you feel better.

So…whether you’ve always been a basically happy personality, or you’re working on getting there, a smile on your face can lead to both feeling and looking happier. As a bonus, you’ll probably look younger, too.

In his 1936 film, Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a song later known as “Smile. “ The lyrics include this insight: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.”

Smile, anyone?

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