The Grumpy Old Man Stereotype Is A Lie: Trust Increases With Age, Improves Overall Well-Being

older man
Here's something to look forward to with aging. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Growing older generally means reluctantly accepting reality, and as the years pass, becoming a grumpy old man or cranky old woman. According to a recent study, however, not everyone's heart turns to stone. Many, in fact, open.

Scientists at Northwestern University have found that no matter the generation there seems to be a general increase in trust and happiness as individuals age — something that leads to not only a more positive outlook on life but also increased overall well-being.

“Our new findings show that trust increases as people get older and, moreover, that people who trust more are also more likely to experience increases in happiness over time,” study co-author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, explained in a recent press release.

This conclusion is based on the result of a two-part study, the first of which involved examining the association between age and trust at multiple points in history. In order to do this, the researchers used a sample of 197,888 individuals from 83 countries. According to the press release, no matter the culture the scientists repeatedly saw a general positive association with age and trust. The second part of the study was smaller, consisting of only 1,230 people, but still showed the same results of trust increasing with age. This suggested that “age-related trust” is not a new phenomenon but has existed unchanged for at least the past 30 years.

“For Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike, levels of trust increase as people get older,” Haase explained. “People really seem to be ‘growing to trust’ as they travel through their adult years.”

This increasing trust is associated with many other positive qualities, such as optimism and forgiveness, all traits which help to increase an individual’s happiness and overall well-being.

This intrinsic link between trust and well-being has been well documented and is largely based in biology. Oxytocin is a hormone that helps to induce relaxation and happiness in individuals and has been aptly named “the trust hormone.” The hormone is released through close contact with others and helps us to establish trust, intimacy, and attachment with others. On top of building trust, oxytocin helps to stave off a number of both psychological and physiological problems as well. It gives individuals a boost in self-esteem optimism, and (you guessed it) happiness, io9 reported. Pysiologically, the hormone has been documented to help heal wounds faster, relieve pain, and is even administered synthetically to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although too much trust can often lead individuals to be taken advantage of by others, the researchers found this not to be the case in the majority of aging Americans.

“Both studies found a positive association between trust and well-being that was consistent across the life span, suggesting that trust is not a liability in old age,” explained study coauthor Michael Poulin, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo.

Growing older is an inevitable and often dreaded part of life, but perhaps this widespread perspective needs to be readjusted, because as suggested by these findings, things do really get better with age. 

Source: Poulin MJ, Haase CM. Growing to Trust: Evidence that Trust Increases and Sustains Well-being Across the Life Span. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2015.

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