[OUTLOOK]Forget about acting your age

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[OUTLOOK]Forget about acting your age

Age is an important factor when making plans in life. People tend to ask themselves if they are at the right age when they make important decisions such as entering college, marrying or getting a job. They keep wondering whether they are moving on at the right pace and whether they are acting properly according to their age.
In human development from one’s birth to a certain point in life, a person shows progress, then starts to decline. The point at which the decline starts varies from person to person. Even in one individual, different aspects have different rates of development.
Physical development reaches its peak while people are still young and starts to decline from then on, while mental and psychological abilities can keep growing even when they become very old.
Recent psychological studies show that a person’s happiness about life is more influenced by internal traits than external conditions.
People who feel unhappy believe that external conditions such as social status, social functions and physical appearance are a prerequisite for happiness. Meanwhile, happy people think that internal traits such as satisfaction and personal character are important factors for happiness.
Thus, older people, who have relatively inferior external condition such as old age and weakened bodies, do not necessarily lack the ability to enjoy happiness in life. Older people might have a bigger capacity to feel happiness than younger people, because older people may be more mature mentally and psychologically.
Psychologists also say that as a person ages, he or she feels a stronger desire to be acknowledged by others, to acquire more knowledge and to feel love.
But people are forced to refrain themselves from satisfying that desire because there is a prejudice that as one gets older, one’s desire naturally weakens, or one should even try to be free from desire.
Some people are trapped in the idea that they should act as expected by others according to their age and thus do not realize their capacity for happiness.
That is similar to such people lowering their high level of mental and psychological development to fit their declining physical condition. This is clearly a mistake.
Sometimes people compare themselves with younger people and wish they were also younger. Comparison with others usually brings more unhappiness than happiness.
In a comparison study with others and its effect on happiness, researchers measured the happiness felt by subjects and then had the subjects play a word game. Their partners’ performances were manipulated beforehand by the researchers.
As a result, the subjects who were initially categorized as unhappy people from the earlier assessment made good evaluations of themselves when their partners played worse than them, and negative evaluations when their partners played better.
People who feel unhappy are very sensitive to others. Comparisons with others make these people underestimate their competence and thus make them feel more depressed and unhappy.
If we reverse the logic, people who compare themselves with others and are sensitive to these comparisons have difficulty in feeling happy. This theory applies to our understanding about age, too. Some people compare themselves with younger people and refrain from doing or feeling certain things only because of their age.
If we are too conscious of social norms that restrict our behavior on the basis of age and if we constantly compare ourselves with others only to focus on our inferior traits, we cannot help but feel unhappy .
We don’t need to feel bad about choosing to follow our own desires in life over the customary expectations of what is appropriate for certain ages.
We all want to stay young and have a happy life. To feel truly happy, we should forget the idea that we should act according to our age, not worry about how others views us and instead accept our unique expectations of life.

* The writer is a professor of psychology at Seoul National University.

by Kwak Keum-joo
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