According to some social scientists, the older we get, the more our personal ethics matter. It probably has something to do with the desire most of us have to wrap things up here on Earth on a good note. I mean, who wants to face Judgment Day as a lousy tipper or as someone who intentionally left the shopping cart where it would dent the Mercedes parked one spot over?
Yet the perception is that the older people get, the crankier and more self-absorbed they become. So which is true?
Perhaps a little of both.
Steve Wilkens, author of "Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong" and a professor of philosophy and ethics at Azusa Pacific University, believes that most people become more generous as they get older -- at least they did pre-recession. Pre-recession retirees had more disposable income, he said, which might have fueled their largess when it came to spreading their wealth.
"They were no longer paying for club soccer or college and could become better tippers or give more generously to their favorite charities," Wilkens said. The other factor Wilkens observes is that raising children makes people more open to helping others. "Parenting is an experience that helps you realize life isn't only about you."
But ethics isn't just about money and who you give it away to. It's how you conduct yourself when no one is watching, right? Are you someone who pretends they didn't notice the six-item limit on the always-shorter express line or do you take your 10 items to the main register wait patiently in line? Would you point out the cashier's error when it's in your favor? Do you let the other driver take the last parking spot?
Elijah Weber, who runs a blog called Everyday Ethics, says one of the motivating factors behind holding higher ethical standards as people age is the desire for a favorable legacy. The need to be remembered positively may be why we offer to slide down from the aisle seat in the movies and why we turn in the watch we found in the office restroom. We are being nice, we tell ourselves, or at least that's how we want others to see us.
Every day we face small decisions that challenge our personal ethics. An example: If you found a $5 bill on the ground, would you keep it or give it to the first homeless guy you see? For $5 you may be buying the cheapest "feel-good" experience of your day, yet for some, the money would go straight into their wallets.
Weber recalls traveling to Costa Rica when he was an undergraduate, and having one of his peers comment on how frequently he gave money to homeless people there. "Her comment was 'How are you so generous?' My response was something like 'I just want people to know someone cares about them,'" he recalled.
But nowadays, Weber -- at the ripe old age of 31 -- isn't giving his money away to the homeless. Did he stop wanting people to know he cared about them as he got older? No, he said, "but my priorities and values have changed." Now he cares much more about being remembered as a good husband, good father and a good philosophy teacher. "Further, I want my close friends and family to remember me that way, and I'm less concerned about what a bunch of strangers think," he noted.
Weber is actually following in the footsteps of his father who, as he aged, is now "selective about where he directs his ethical energy," Weber said. "To his children and his wife, he's supportive, caring and helpful. But if you want him to donate money to African food relief, or to protect endangered species, the answer's probably going to be 'no.'"
Why the shift? Was it a factor of aging? "It's not that he can't afford it," Weber said, "because he could." It's just that those causes aren't as important to him.
Joshua Halberstam, author of "Everyday Ethics" (unaffiliated with Weber's site), says it isn't a matter of people becoming kinder or self-absorbed as they age. He suggested this: "People stay exactly the same. The nice ones stay nice and the jerks stay jerks."
"In some cases, some of our anger may dissipate," Halberstam said. "We don't have as much to prove as we get older. We gossip less because we have greater understanding of people's foibles. Things like road rage may give way to letting people actually cut into your traffic lane.
"But it also may turn out that we just don't learn a whole lot as we get older," he said.
Readers, your thoughts?
10. You'll Feel Old
Just the opposite, in fact: a 2009 Pew Research Survey found that <a href="http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2009/06/29/growing-old-in-america-expectations-vs-reality/" target="_hplink">"the older people get, the younger they feel, relatively speaking." </a> Researchers observed a gap between chronological age and "felt age" that grew wider as people grew older, with nearly half of respondents 50 and older reporting that they felt 10 to 19 years younger than their chronological age.
9. Your Brain Power Declines
"The deficiencies of a middle-aged brain have likely been overstated by anecdotal evidence and even by some scientific studies," reports Melissa Lee Phillips in a <a href="http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/04/mind-midlife.aspx" target="_hplink">2011 article</a> for the American Psychological Association's <a href="http://www.apa.org/monitor/" target="_hplink"><em>Monitor on Psychology</em></a>. In fact, verbal and math abilities and spatial and abstract reasoning all improve in middle age. Phillips also reports that as they age, brains may employ effective techniques to compensate for cognitive decline, such as the use of both hemispheres in solving problems (younger brains, in contrast, often use only one until confronted with a particularly challenging problem). The idea of <a href="http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/13/want-to-prevent-agin-learn-another-language/" target="_hplink">cognitive reserve</a> has also been getting some buzz lately--that although all brains may atrophy, bilingual brains, for example, seem to be effective at resisting the effects of aging and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's, as a result of the workout they've been given over the course of a lifetime.
8. You'll Stop Having Sex
"Recent studies and surveys show the brains of those well over 60 yeas old want and enjoy sex," observes Judith Horstman in her book, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Scientific-American-Healthy-Aging-Brain/dp/0470647736" target="_hplink">"The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain."</a> She points to a national survey of men and a women between 75 and 85, where three-quarters of male respondents and half of women respondents said they were still interested in sex and still sexually active.
7. You'll Be Stuck With Bad Habits
Making positive lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, can still have an impact on health, no matter how late the changes are implemented. For example, older smokers are wrong to believe that "they are too old to quit or too old to benefit from quitting," according to <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47771059/ns/health/#.T9d8NStYvop" target="_hplink">a recent report</a> summarizing a number of studies on the subject. Judith Horstman further asserts in <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Scientific-American-Healthy-Aging-Brain/dp/0470647736" target="_hplink">"The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain"</a> that "starting an exercise regimen later in life can pay off in brain benefits even when some cognitive decline has already set in," citing research conducted in 2010 on the effects of a mild walking routine on previously sedentary adults.
6. Your Happiness Will Decline
In fact, many people view midlife as their happiest period. Several surveys have found that while happiness dips in the 40s, people start to feel more content with life after the age of 50, and a study recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization found that people are <a href="http://theconversation.edu.au/age-and-happiness-debunking-the-myth-of-middle-aged-blues-7451" target="_hplink">"at their happiest at retirement age."</a>
5. Frailty Is Inevitable
"While getting older is the strongest risk factor for osteoporosis, many elderly individuals never develop the disorder," observes Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. of Harvard Health Publications, in an <a href="http://health.msn.com/health-topics/osteoporosis/10-osteoporosis-myths" target="_hplink">article</a> for MSN Health.
4. You'll Suffer From Empty Nest Syndrome
Several studies have concluded that an empty nest actually allows for increased marital satisfaction, as <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/health/20well.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> by <em>The New York Times</em>. Far from being lost and depressed, many "empty-nesters" enjoy the uninterrupted quality time they now have the opportunity to share.
3. You'll Stop Learning And Growing
Gone are the days when the adult brain was assumed to be a stagnant entity: the idea of neuroplasticity, or <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580438-2,00.html" target="_hplink">"the [adult brain's] ability to change its structure and function in response to experience,"</a> has become widely accepted in scientific circles and is seeping into popular culture. Particularly exciting is the idea of "self-directed neuroplasticity," or the power of thought to re-wire the brain, <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580438-5,00.html" target="_hplink">as observed in Buddhist monks</a>. In other words, you can too teach an old dog new tricks.
2. You'll Become Less Social And More Isolated
While social isolation is a serious issue amongst many housebound elderly, they are often more socially adept than younger people. "As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding," Dr. Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology, and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, <a href="http://www.oprah.com/health/Aging-Brain-Facts-Do-You-Get-Smarter-as-You-Age#ixzz1xbYMbvOa. " target="_hplink">told <em>O</em> magazine</a>. "We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work--and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to." Not only that, but socializing may well be the best thing to do for an aging brain, according to Horstman, as it decreases stress and the perception of pain, among other health benefits.
1. Your Destiny Is Out Of Your Control
"One may have greater personal control over one's biopsychosocial health after retirement than previously recognized," concluded a study conducted over a 60-year period, <a href="http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=174810" target="_hplink">published in the <em>American Journal of Psychiatry</em></a>. After studying the lives of more than 500 people, researchers found that "successful aging" was largely dependent on seven factors within an individual's control, to a degree: alcohol use, whether or not they smoke, marital stability, exercise, body mass index, coping mechanisms, and education. Successful aging was defined as including good physical health/absence of irreversible physical disability, longevity, evidence of social supports, and good mental health, as well as subjective assessment of life enjoyment and ability to complete the tasks of daily living. So although aging is inevitable, aging well is not only possible but within our power.