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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 19-May-16 17:35:54

Why it's never too late to change

Is there a certain age at which change becomes too difficult? Too much of an effort? Polly Morland claims that with age comes a lingering ability to change - it just depends on your outlook.

Polly Morland

Why it's never too late to change

Posted on: Thu 19-May-16 17:35:54


Lead photo

Do you believe there's a cut-off age for change?

‘You can't teach an old dog new tricks,' so the saying goes, and lots of us believe it. We tend to think that there comes a certain time in middle life when taking on new challenges or breaking old habits, changing the way we look, the way we act, the way we think or feel, what we do or say, is well, frankly, beyond us. The ship's sailed and we're simply stuck with the people we are today, forever. The father of modern psychology, William James, pulled no punches on the subject. He argued that by the age of thirty, "the character has set like plaster, never to soften again".

But William James was wrong. His statement came in an essay from the 1890s – no beach read, by the way – in which he gave an early and often overlooked account of brain plasticity as the neurological engine room of how we change as individuals.

The point about the plaster was a rallying call to get your personality and habits shipshape before it was too late. As brain science then developed through the 20th century, this idea stuck fast. Neuroplasticity (the carving out of new pathways and connections in our brains) continued to be considered more or less a function of youth. But numerous recent studies have turned that assumption on its head, showing that both neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells) continue even into old age. Indeed, give the ageing brain a combination of mental variety and physical activity and it can remain nimble and flexible as a ballroom dancer.

Realising that you don't necessarily have all the time in the world can trigger a little cascade of change in many people. They realign their priorities.

My own research has focused on how and why we change at different stages in our lives, both the gradual, natural changes that take us from decade to decade and those moments when we seize the reins and send our lives off in surprising new directions.

I've spent two years talking to men and women of all ages who've experienced or pursued great transformations in their lives. And if I've learned one thing, it's that change is not only a constant, but a dynamic, democratic force that's within everyone's grasp, if they're open to it, want it enough and are prepared to work hard at it.

Which is why understanding that we're physiologically built to change, that it sits within the fabric and structure of our brains, is so key. Psychologists have shown that a belief in your ability to change turns out to be a key indicator of whether you actually can. One study in particular, from the Stanford Center on Longevity, suggests that the unique vantage point of riper years can, for many, bring about positive changes in outlook and motivation. Call it happiness, but what's so interesting is that this isn't simply to do with having been round the block a few times. No, the clincher, according to the study, is that realising that you don't necessarily have all the time in the world can trigger a little cascade of change in many people. They realign their priorities. They sweat the small stuff a bit less, savour the things that matter a bit more. They don't decline - they grow, they adapt and in the process, find themselves happier day-to-day than ever before. Change is not just for the under-fifties. It's a life-long reality and a long-life skill.

So yes, it may well be later than you think, but the message is that it’s also never too late to change.

Polly's new book Metamorphosis: How and Why We Change is published by Profile Books and is available from Amazon.

By Polly Morland

Twitter: @ProfileBooks

grannylyn65 Thu 19-May-16 17:40:31

Indeed, the 'Oldies' I look after ( 89 & 90 ) are always keen to try new things, including Broccoli and Stilton soup !!

Judthepud2 Fri 20-May-16 10:05:47

It is reassuring to read this about brain plasticity. In other words, it is ok to make changes even in old age. I quite enjoy change from time to time, but do find myself slipping into a rut sometimes especially now that I am retired. It isn't my brain that is averse to change. It's just laziness!

DCs keep me alert and involved in things especially DD3. She keeps me up to date with online technology and challenges me to do different things. ? My latest move is on the hair front. I'm going silver, not grey, silver!

Willow500 Fri 20-May-16 15:29:49

My in-laws reinvented themselves several times after retiring - they certainly weren't afraid to try something new unlike my own parents.

FarNorth Sat 21-May-16 12:23:13

I think people often get into a rut in their thirties, and feel that they are set like plaster, as William James said. Then they realise they will probably have a lot more years to live and the life they have is dull so they perk up and make changes.

GrandmaMoira Sat 21-May-16 12:50:33

I think you can always change, it's more a personality thing whether you like change or continuing doing the same things, rather than age. In my last few years at work things changed all the time and you just had to keep up with the new technology and working practices. Now I'm retired, I feel that instead of collecting things as I've always done, I'd prefer to be more minimalist. My interests have changed a bit as well. Meeting new people, especially a new partner, also brings out changes in you.

tiggypiro Sat 21-May-16 14:12:33

Yes you can teach an old lady new tricks. Heading fast towards 70 I am learning to kayak - went for my first lesson last week and was told I was very good !! The only time I got wet was when it poured down.

Leticia Sat 21-May-16 15:39:22

You actually have the time to change once you retire.
A great time to try new things, make new friends, have new challenges etc.

thatbags Sat 21-May-16 17:06:57

Democratic? Personal change is "democratic"? What a weird thing to say. What can you mean?

thatbags Sat 21-May-16 17:10:23

Trying something new isn't changing; it's trying something new. I'd be happy with a statement that it's never too late to try something new.

And I don't accept that people don't decline as they get older. They do. At different rates. Some are luckier than others and decline less. Going deaf or blind, finding walking more difficult because of arthritis, and similar age-related problems are declines.

jinglbellsfrocks Sat 21-May-16 17:13:03

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man?

Perhaps all these "changes" some people make in later life, don't actually go very deep. Just a manifestation of fear of ageing, rather than the ability to adjust happily to getting older. In other words - panic!

jinglbellsfrocks Sat 21-May-16 17:15:48

tiggypiro I hope your ribs are stronger than mine were when I tried kayaking with the GSs a few years back. The pain the next day was too bad to want to do it again.

lizzypopbottle Sun 22-May-16 12:45:45

Somebody please tell me what that picture is? ??

carerof123 Sun 22-May-16 13:18:47

I think it is a chrysalis changing into a butterfly or moth.

tiggypiro Sun 22-May-16 18:49:19

No problem at all with my ribs jingl but a nerve in my back has again become irritated. It may have nothing to do with the kayaking so I will give it another go.
I spent much of last year in agony at times while DS and 2 GS's were here for the summer and it looks like it is going to be the same this year. They arrive in 3 weeks so any ideas of how to get rid of the pain greatly appreciated. Last year it just went away pretty much as they boarded their flight !

Anya Sun 22-May-16 19:44:13

William James ...father of modern psychology hmm


M0nica Sun 22-May-16 19:53:44

I really do not understand this blog. What is he trying to say? I always understood that we all adapt and change throughout our lives and that was the default option.

It was the stick-in-the -muds that one always noticed and commented on because they were the exceptions. confused

janeainsworth Sun 22-May-16 21:39:10

It took me 50 years to feel comfortable in my own skin.
I don't want to change.
I don't mind trying new things and learning new things and going to new places, but essentially I'm happy being me.
I've exercised strength to change the things I can and am able to accept the things I can't..............hmm

jinglbellsfrocks Sun 22-May-16 23:20:02

tiggypiro so long as you have no stomach problems, it might help to take a couple of ibuprofen before you do the kayaking. Enjoy it if you can. smile (We had two kayaks lashed together to make one very stable unit with no danger of capsizing. I am not brave)

dahlia08 Tue 24-May-16 10:17:39

I keep saying I will try to change but as the saying goes tomorrow never comes. I think I am in a rut.

Synonymous Tue 24-May-16 12:32:21

lizzypopbottle and carerof123 I thought it was the larder of a very tidy and organised spider! grin

lizzypopbottle Tue 24-May-16 16:25:34

careof123 & Synonymous it's weird that I absolutely couldn't see what it was until I was told. Then it was obvious ?

lizzypopbottle Tue 24-May-16 16:27:18

Mind you, I got fed up before the end of the article. If I'd seen the word 'metamorphosis' I might've had more of a clue ?

Luckylegs9 Mon 30-May-16 17:45:32

A lot of how we age is down to good genes and good luck. If you enjoy good health you can try different things as long as you have an enquiringly mind. There is a programme about aging on Wednesday which should be interesting. I have worried unnecessarily over the years and should know better that it's futile, but try as I might I can't stop reverting to old habits. I have always wanted to travel and start new projects, I never run out of ideas and places to visit, think I will keep on until I shuffle off.

Jenty61 Mon 06-Jun-16 08:35:50

not so much change more adapting your life style to suit your capabilities ...take note of your body when its telling you to ease up if you overdo things...those things will still be there tomorrow...