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The Bucket (List) Is Never Empty: Personality Theory and the Last Third of Life

Darrell 1 year ago 4 comments

“Well, something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.” – Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

The Muddled Thinking Behind Ageism

“The good thing about being old is not being young.” – Stephen Richards

The last third of life. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

In society, at least in Western culture, an ageist tendency exists that paints the senior years as a sad and unproductive time. But life plays a joke on most ageists. Most eventually become the people they pity or scorn.

Some blame our societal discomfort with death as the source of our collective dread of getting older. Old age reminds humans of that which follows. Others credit the false picture drawn of old age as only a series of physically and mentally debilitating events. While there are such challenges to be sure, old age is not a disease. But whatever the causes for the fears we hold, they generally do no justice to the real-life definition of aging nor how one might experience it.

There are genuine reasons to celebrate each senior birthday as a harbinger of opportunity, fulfillment, and happiness. Recent research has provided a buttress against some of our negative attitudes toward aging. It suggests that people in their golden years are happier and possess better mental health overall than younger people.

Research has sent back a message from explorers who have journeyed into the land of our elders. Statistics suggest that things are just fine with older folks. The whole old-age experience is just suffering from some bad PR. But many of our senior citizens already know this. One 78-year-old interviewed for this article said, “It’s not always a bowl of cherries, but life is pretty damn good. I would not trade the perspective I have now to be any younger.”

So, in a similar spirit of busting the myth of miserable old age, we now hope to put to rest the idea that studying one’s personality only benefits the young. Why worry about it after a certain age? The sense is that younger people might use personality typing to help plan and manage their still-forming lives, but older people are on a track that needs no such planning nor intentional design. But that’s ageism speaking. There is still much to be discovered during one’s later years.

Many Lives in Every Life

“Don’t ever stop believing in your own transformation. It is still happening even on days you may not realize it or feel like it.” – Lalah Delia

Life is not a single continuous and unbroken entity with a single distinct beginning and a single distinct end. Instead, it’s a series of lives, each evolving into the other. Some parts of the preceding life remain, but some are surrendered, making room for fresh perspectives and more mature pursuits. We often see, for example, young adults finding the transition to adulthood rocky when they refuse to abandon certain childlike behaviors that they treasured in their youth. Such evolutionary transitions weave themselves several times throughout an average lifetime.

Change is our only constant. “Something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day,” wrote songwriter Joni Mitchell. The existential questions that the wise ask themselves involve deciding how much time to spend mourning one’s losses and how much to dedicate to developing one’s gains.

Old age is perhaps the most dramatic of these transitions. This transition brings marked physical and mental changes that may slow older people in some ways – but not in all ways. In place of a certain youthful vigor often stands a robust wisdom born of experience. When seniors pair that with the luxury of more discretionary time for exploring their wisdom and passions, it can create a meaningful stage of life.

But a quick unscientific search in one’s favorite search engine using the word “aging” shows many clear trends in our thinking about this last stage out of many. Here are a few:

1. Denial: Reverse and reject it. “This antiaging cream will make you look 20 years younger.” “Is science on the brink of ending aging?” It seems like at this point in history, it may be a gamble to put too many eggs in this basket. And there is the subliminal message that there is something we should reject about getting older. But, while acceptance seems more sensible, who’s to say an older person who feels so inclined shouldn’t join the aging resistance movement and try to stay young? Trying to stay young physically, no matter how futile, may have the psychological effect of helping one remain young at heart.

2. Conformity: A sense that there is a right way and a wrong way to be old. Most ads for retirement villages make them look like well-planned summer camps for seniors. Some other search results seem to suggest that older people who don’t want to mentor or to volunteer squander their chances for purposeful lives. Retirement villages are an excellent choice for those who want to stay engaged socially and keep busy, and volunteering and mentoring are noble pursuits.

However, just because a person reaches a certain age doesn’t mean that they suddenly relate to the world in a markedly different way. People usually live based on the same criteria they used before the years accumulated. Some may thrive in a structured community, while others will resist someone else organizing and managing their lives for them. Instead, they may finally buy that home... that hermitage... far from others, by the lake or in the country. The role of the wise mentor is not a good fit for everyone, nor will we all suddenly be ready to take on that mantle at a certain age. Not every older person wants to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.

3. Custom aging: Respond to aging by taking “the road less traveled.” There are all kinds of examples of this in the search engines, bucket lists that include exotic travel adventures and other stimulating leisure: an 80-year-old in graduate school, a 78-year-old debut author, and a TED Talk featuring a 93-year-old bodybuilder. It should surprise no one that a handful of seniors happily work at jobs they love well into their eighties and nineties. Such people have no thoughts of rocking chairs or bingo retirements. There are those who ignore convention and decide on a unique path. Some may have lived all their lives as bohemians, while others may finally see an opportunity to shed conventions that they previously felt forced to embrace. Then again, not everyone must go this way either.

Obviously, these three perspectives need not be exclusive from each other – there might be a dash of number one and a handful of number two with a generous smattering of number three to spice things up, for example. All combinations are viable and depend on the person’s personality and the things they value in life. The point is this: there is no one right way to grow older and deciding what is right for the individual can be where understanding one’s personality type is most helpful.

Areas in Which Personality Theory Can Help with Navigating the Senior Years

“Whenever my mum gets depressed about her age, she goes to Paris.” Jane Tara

The following are a few broad places where personality theory might help seniors navigate the last third of life. It is by no means comprehensive, nor should it be. Elderly people are not a homogenous group where one size fits all, and so our guidelines remain general to accommodate all personality types, unique challenges, and individual preferences. For now, we leave the specifics to you and provide plenty of resources on our website. Hopefully, this can provide a starting point and motivation for those who are interested.

In fact, we further hope that, in time, those who are in their senior years might tell us about ways they uniquely use personality theory to nurture their continued growth beyond the general suggestions we offer here. There are a few common crises and tasks of old age that we will consider below and explore how understanding one’s personality traits might help resolve them. For our purposes, we’ll focus on three: “Purpose or Lack of Purpose,” “Choice or Lack of Choice,” and “Reflection as a Task of Old Age.”

Purpose or Lack of Purpose

“Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” – Lauren Bacall

The nest is empty. They threw a retirement party at work, gave you a watch, and sent you home. Forever. The once-important things that got you out of bed in the morning are suddenly gone. When did that happen? It’s almost like it crept up on you. Suddenly, that which previously defined much of your purpose is gone.

“I don’t want to just sit around reading and getting fat,” said one individual who was recently talking about her coming retirement. “I’m happy to retire. I just don’t want it to be about doing nothing. I need a purpose.”

Losing a sense of purpose is an oft-mentioned anxiety for those growing older. Most people need some sense that their existence means something – that it holds value. There isn’t a canned answer to the “purpose question” that satisfies every senior any more than there is one for younger people.

As in their younger days, some older individuals need complex problems to wrestle with, while others seek altruistic missions to undertake, and still others feel compelled to tackle community, family, or societal duties. Some may discover purpose in simply relaxing, being, and enjoying themselves after years of hard work denied them the opportunity to do so. For them, purpose may be finally reaping the rewards of a life well-lived. Who can say this isn’t meaningful in its own way? But the point remains: purpose is an individual thing defined solely by those who seek it.

Understanding their personality type and reminding themselves of their core preferences can help older people answer the purpose question. People sometimes find that they lose who they are or what their life is about, because life circumstances demand so many adaptations in the name of basic survival and security and sometimes less basic prosperity. We do what we must do to get by and thrive.

But the senior years may be the time to dream again the dreams you once dreamed. A deep review of your fundamental personality traits might help sort out any lingering questions about being true to yourself and living with purpose. The last third of life may be the time to explore yourself more deeply to find, restore, or maintain that which brings meaning to you.

Choice or Lack of Choice

“We are our choices.” Jean-Paul Sartre

Early in life, adults emphasize all the choices that lie before you. “What are you going to be when you grow up?” “Are you planning to marry?” Entering the last stage of life, it may feel like you’ve already made all the important decisions. The meaningful choices seem like something in the rearview mirror. Romance, family, job, chosen community... the aspects of life that define the person you wish to be can seem like done deals by the time your 65th birthday rolls around.

Choice represents autonomy. The fewer the choices, the more helpless people become, and they lose some control of their fate. Life demands a boatload of important choices from us early on. In terms of sheer quantity, there are likely many more things to decide in youth. Consequently, pessimists might describe old age as a time when choices dwindle. Yes. One is unlikely to create a new family at 70. While unfair (and even illegal sometimes), many employers refuse to hire those who are a little grayer than others. So age, in some respects, may limit the buffet of choices that lie before older citizens.

But maybe choices become more about quality than quantity after a certain age. “What can I choose to do to make these years really count?” Your thoughts might look something like this:

  • “Do I want to pursue romance or rekindle one that I’m already in? Or will I decide that I’m exhausted from the upkeep that relationships have demanded of me all my life? Should I choose instead to spend the last years on my own?”
  • “What about work? Do I continue working because I want to or I must, or am I better off hitting the snooze button most mornings?”
  • “Do I want to spend my Wednesdays with others learning a new craft, or do I want to tutor adults who have never learned to read? Opera or a Rolling Stones concert?”
  • “Do I continue doing something I’ve done all my life and have a passion for, or do I look for a new adventure?”

Despite illusions to the contrary, choices always abound – even in the later years – and the choices are still yours to make as you wish.

Enter personality traits: not only can a better self-understanding lead to better decision-making, but it can also make the range of choices wider. Reminding yourself of your personality preferences can be very freeing and may even allow some to see options they hadn’t considered as viable or useful in years. On the other hand, past circumstances may have allowed you to be yourself in some unfettered and out-of-balance way, leaving you with some regrets. Perhaps there is a need now to find some balance, to make amends, and go in a different direction. Personality traits can offer hints about course corrections that reflect a deeper level of maturity.

Understanding who you are and what you value can help you make more intentional and insightful choices regardless of your age. And you can always choose growth.

Reflection as a Task of Old Age

“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.” Jane Hirshfield

Developmental theorist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said that older people struggle between seeing the life they lived as having integrity and fulfillment and seeing their younger lives as something that causes them regret and despair. He uses age 65 as the beginning benchmark of this part of life, although the starting points to his stages are always somewhat flexible. His theory may be the reason that so many senior people tell stories over and over. According to Erikson, it’s a time of reflection and assessment, and the storytelling is perhaps an extension of that.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that one only obsesses over the past with no regard for forward thinking. See the preceding two sections. However, looking back on one’s life can be instrumental in helping decide how to live the rest of it.

Others cannot do the work described by Erikson for those entering this stage. Each person must do their own work, reflect in their own way, and come to their own conclusions. If we are to subscribe to Erikson’s stages, resolving this stage is as essential to overall development as resolving any of those stages that came before. Doing so with a full understanding and a strong sense of one’s self is vital.

One thing that can help the reflection process is if you reconnect with your core personality traits and are able to look at your life filtered through an understanding of the impulses and preferences that are integral to who you are. How did your personality influence your life choices? This should never provide an excuse when taking responsibility is preferable and the right thing to do. Nonetheless, understanding your personality fully can help explain past behaviors and perhaps even provide the foundation for appreciating yourself more fully or for finding the compassion to forgive yourself if needed.

Personality Types and Pressing On Into the Golden Years

“Growing up wrinkles the skin, giving up wrinkles the soul.” – Amit Kalantri

The last third of life. For those entering or occupying this stage of life, it’s yours to do with what you will. It’s your life, so in that very real sense, there is no wrong way to do it, as long as you are happy, your choices are ethical, and you choose what brings you solid fulfillment. But it is advisable to select a path – being adrift in life works for few people at any age, especially if it feels involuntary. The path ahead may be a bit shorter, but it is by no means less meaningful. Understanding your personality type and using the tools on our website can help you press on reflectively, with purpose, and intentionally. For those who want to do a deeper dive into self-exploration, our Academy can be an exciting option.

Join the community. Let us know what you think about growing older. What are some of your fears? What are you looking forward to? For those in their senior years, what have you discovered that would surprise younger people? How have you been designing these years so that you find fulfillment? Has exploring your personality traits helped in that design? If so, how? We look forward to your feedback.

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