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Reach a certain age, and it’s almost expected that if you’re not, say, the sweet old granny happily baking strudel, you’re more than likely to become the cranky, cane-waving curmudgeon. No wonder the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men is getting retooled for a new generation, this time starring Eddie Murphy.
But the assumption that a grumpier outlook accompanies wrinkles and gray hair is simply wrong. “Older people tend to be happier than the general population,” says Heidi White, M.D., a professor of medicine in the geriatrics division of Duke University School of Medicine. “So why do we have that stereotype? Because we’re an ageist society and we misunderstand older adults.”
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Empirically, older people are no more likely to be irritable or unpleasant than anyone else. If anything, research shows that overall, they tend to be relatively content and patient. Among other factors, a phenomenon known as the Positivity Effect sets in, where we tend to remember the good over the bad.
For many, lifestyle shifts also can favor a slight mellowing in attitude. Being able to retire means you no longer have to spar with a demanding boss or chase around a brood of unruly children. Instead, you can drop in on the grandchildren at your leisure or take off for a spontaneous weekend getaway without telling anyone.
If a well-oiled retirement can remove certain mood-hampering stress, old age can, of course, present its own kind. And certain temperaments may struggle more than others with age-related challenges.
Consider a typical dinner out. On the plus side, you may now have more time to dine at a new restaurant in town. But once you arrive, you’re reminded of just how noisy many new places are — making it difficult to hear conversation if your hearing is compromised. Dim lighting can make it hard to read a menu. A busy server may get impatient if you have trouble hearing the specials. Narrow walkways pose trip hazards if you’re navigating past tables and chairs with a cane or walker. Anyone could feel cranky by the time the dessert menu rolls around. “The irritable old man is really about the lack of accommodation that we make for older adults,” White notes.
It’s also possible that you’re not more grumpy, just more vocal. Certain natural changes that occur as we age, like impulse control, can make you more sharp-tongued than before, and more likely to say what is on your mind, for good or bad.