What teens and older adults have in common: rigidity!

Older woman with teenage girl, smiling at each other

What teens and older adults have in common: rigidity!

The in-her-very-late-90s fashion icon Iris Apfel says flea markets make her feel like a teenager again.

“I still go to flea markets in my car,” she told the Sun Herald, Sunday July 7th, 2019. “I hurt; my back is killing me – and then I get there and jump out and all of a sudden I’m 19 again.”

There are slivers of life that make us all feel like a teenager again. The song that made you cry at 16 playing over the supermarket sound system. Reconnecting with a friend from your youth on Facebook, and seeing in that older man’s face the traces of one you knew and loved. In your heart, the emotions haven’t changed. But have you?

According to a Harvard study*, older people resemble teenagers in a psychological quirk that does not work in our favour if we want to continue to grow. We both tend to believe our Self is now fixed and has done all the changing it’s going to do. We think that how we are is how we will stay.

The End Of History Illusion

A 2013 study of more than 19,000 people, led by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and reported in Sciencemagazine, described what the team of researchers labelled the End of History Illusion. All of us to some extent – but more so older people and teenagers – “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” While people acknowledge they have changed a lot in the past, they “believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow.”

This, of course, is not the case. Change being the only constant, there are many changes we ought to expect – like greying hair and wrinkles – and plenty of unexpected surprises that will change our lives as well. Whether they are positive or negative changes in our financial or physical state, within our families or friend group, change is happening every day. The Harvard team says the problem with our mind’s proclivity to fix its image of the Self – in spite of the evidence of life around us – is that it leads to poor decision-making. We “overpay for future opportunities to indulge current preferences.” It is not too hard to find examples of that – the lover’s name tattooed across your butt. The hasty marriage or re-marriage. The time-share you locked your vacations into for decades to come. The two-story townhouse you bought in your sixties, never imagining the stairs would soon be a problem. We underestimate how much our values, traits, preferences and capacities will evolve.

For teenagers it seems understandable. They have emerged from the dependence of childhood into their autonomous selves, their self-image bolstered or bashed by their peer group or teachers or parents or culture. They feel – even when they’re in pain – that they have arrived and this is the “me” they will always be. One terrible outcome is the high rate of youth suicide. They are too young to have learned that things will always change and their current pit of misery isn’t permanent.

But shouldn’t we know better?

For older people – with a lifetime of experience behind them – the feeling that we are who we will always be is perhaps the ultimate victory of hope over experience.

How much have you changed since you were 16? How have your views on sex changed? Your taste in food and drink? The choices you make with your leisure time? Wherever we are in our personal history we are not at the end of it until that last exhale, so how do we stay aware and awake to change, so we don’t lock ourselves into situations, relationships or ideas we think are right because they suit the “me” we believe we’ll always be?

Yoga trains us out of this proclivity to fix ourselves, and does it in a subtle way. Every time you take a pose, yoga asks you to notice how it is today and to accept that every day is different. The hip that you could sink into with a deliciously deep warrior pose last week is cranky and uncomfortable today. That’s the noticing part. But the next part is equally important – acceptance. Rather than think “hmmmm, the hip is less comfortable this week, how interesting,” our mind leaps to judgement: “That bloody hip, I could do it last week!” The hip is bad, last week it was good. And then follows the awfulizing. “What if it’s never any good again? What if it stays this sore and miserable forever?” Acceptance takes ongoing effort.

Noticing can help us keep up with our internal alterations in mood, needs and interests. Acceptance helps us stop making every change into a drama – or making the teenage mistake of imagining we will always be this way.

The adventure continues and the game is still on, as long as we are breathing.


*Daniel T Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, Timothy D Wilson, “The End of History Illusion,” Science, Vol. 339, Issue 6115, (2013): 96

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