Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks
Actually, I am not sure about dogs, but I do know that we as humans can continue to learn and grow no matter our age. The question is what new tricks - or rather traits - should I learn, why and how?
Have you ever wished for yourself to be in a certain way but then heard your inner voice say “but I am not like this – this is just who I am. I was born this way!!” Most of us think that we are stuck with our personalities. We might describe ourselves as “a worrier” or say that we are unlucky to have been born with “a short temper”. We might also blame our parents for having “given” us our unwanted traits. The good news, however, is that not all our traits are set in stone. Of course, we cannot get rid of the pointy nose, large ears or receding hairline, but we can influence our behavioural traits.
Our identity or sense of self is not fixed. We are continually creating it in the way we act internally and externally with the world around us. I like to write my self as two separate words. When it is written as one word (as in ‘myself’) it is easy to believe it is something permanent. My self on the other hand is something separate from me. I might feel sad in the moment, but I am not a sad person. I might often think worrying thoughts, but I am not a worrier. My sense of self consists of repeated thoughts and actions. They shape the neurological pathways in my brain, and thereby my habits and preferred ways to react to and act in life. But thanks to neuroplasticity, my brain is able to reorganise its structure, functions, or connections. My identity, sense of self and behavioural traits therefore remains flexible throughout my life.
So, why should we continue to develop the way we behave and respond to life? Isn´t the attraction of age that you no longer have to give a damn about behaving in a certain way? Isn´t this the time of life, where we can finally allow our selves to be just the way we want to be? Well yes, but our old ways of living might not be doing us any favours. Our habits and traits have a significant influence on our well-being, and I think we have all picked up habits and beliefs in life that are not serving us well. Furthermore, as we get older, we are challenged in new ways. We will experience physical and cognitive changes, which we cannot prevent. We therefore need to cultivate the traits that will allow us to cope with these in healthy ways. As the holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is quoted for saying
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way”.
We might not be able to get the physical or cognitive abilities of our youth back, but most of us will still have the mental power to change the attitude with which we respond to the challenges.
So, what are the new tricks/traits I should learn?
In my book, Ageing Upwards, I refer to a study, where they found five personality traits to be the most predictive of well-being. They are enthusiasm, industriousness, compassion, intellectual curiosity and low withdrawal. These traits would be great ones to start cultivating. But you might have more personal ones that you prefer to work on. Patience is one of my personal ones.
How can I learn these new tricks/traits?
By practicing mindfulness regularly, we can become aware of which habits and traits that serve us well and which ones brings us suffering or constrain us. We can choose to nurture or inhibit different urges, thoughts and habits, and thereby slowly and consciously change our traits and sense of self. Although we have no control over our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, we do have the power to decide how we respond to them.
How do I get started?
I suggest you pick one trait you would like to cultivate and experiment with for the next few months or so. If you have a regular meditation practice, bring the trait in as a phrase you wish for your self and repeat it whenever it is appropriate in your everyday life. I am working on being more patient myself. As part of my daily mediations, I started off with silently repeating to myself the phrase ‘may I be patient’. Over time, the phrase crept into my life. When I find myself being tested – usually by my teenage children – I hear my inner voice reminding me to be patient. It reminds me to pause before reacting. It makes me remember the reason why their developing, dopamine-driven teenage brains forget their promises or do silly things, and I am (sometimes) able to respond in ways that doesn´t send us into fights. I will admit that if you ask my children, patience is probably not (yet) a trait they would assign to me, but I am working on it and improving day by day.
What is going to be the new trick/trait you are going to work on? I would love to hear what it is, why and how you are getting on cultivating it.