Everyone knows that while Parmesan cheese may improve with age, plenty of other things don’t. Our knees, for example. Or eyesight. Or memory. But new research from Northwestern University shows that our sense of trust is one asset that gets better with every single birthday. And for people looking to change their level of well-being or improve the quality of their relationships, that’s very good news.
Researchers looked at large sets of data including some 200,000 people from 83 countries and found that trust consistently improved with age—for Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers alike. “We often think of aging in terms of decline and loss, so it was really heartening to know that our ability to trust grows stronger,” says Claudia Haase, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy. “Even better was the validation that the change in trust levels results in us being happier over the entire life span.”
While she can’t say for certain why this happens, Haase believes part of it may be a natural tendency to want to give back as people move through the middle part of life. They also become more optimistic and more forgiving, so that the prospect of fraud or scams becomes less frightening. And while having someone take advantage of that is always a risk, the research found no evidence that negative consequences erode the benefits of trust. “We’re just more likely to shrug off our disappointment in people,” she says.
In fact, she says, one way to look at the research isn’t that people get more trusting as they age, but rather that they manage to overcome their youthful distrust.
There was no magic age when we changed more, “just evidence that people become a little more trusting over time, and by the time you’re looking at people who are 80, they’ve accumulated significantly more trust than someone at 40.” (Want to tune up your sense of trust? Try Life Reimagined’s Zero Negativity program.)
See also: Up Your Empathy
Haase thinks this research can be helpful to people in the midst of a life change. First, “it’s nice to know that age brings emotional positives with it,” she says. “It’s very easy to focus on the negative aspects of aging, but this fits in with other research on ways our emotional and social worlds get better as we mature. It’s good to have something to look forward to.” And it can provide a little insight. “If you find yourself worried about being exploited or scammed, it might help to challenge yourself a little on those fears,” she says. Fostering a greater sense of trust, even if you occasionally get burned, “will likely increase your happiness now, and into your old age.”
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