There are fewer Scrooges in the older population than the younger, said researchers at Claremont Graduate University in California, in a trial where people aged over 65 gave nearly three times as much to a hospital as those aged 18 to 35 after watching a heartrending video about a sick child. They were not only more generous but a were helpful in other ways, such as doing voluntary work. Several other positive behaviours were noted in a study published in the journal ‘Fronters in Behavioural Neuroscience’. But where other studies – and the Scriptures - link positive aspects of older people to years of character development, the Claremont conclusion puts it down to greater production in old age of a hormone, oxytocin (OT), that is linked to empathy and generosity. The study suggests that ‘OT is a feasible candidate to influence the age gradient in prosociality’ – which prompts visions of someone in a white coat chasing the Victor Meldrews of the world with nasal sprays full of it. But it is ‘proven character’ and its thought patterns that produces OT, not the other way around.
It is an interesting study, that makes you think of your own character development. (You can read it by clicking the link at the end of this article.[i]) Summarising, it found that that participants’ change in OT was positively associated with satisfaction with life, empathic concern, dispositional gratitude, and religious commitment.
Lead author Dr Dave Zac said, “Our findings indicate that the neural chemistry that helps sustain social relationships and live a fulfilled life appear to strengthen with age.”
Developing to a good old age was something I examined in ‘What’s Age Got to Do with It?’ It includes people like eminent psychologist James Hillman who wrote, "...let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years conform and fulfil character." [ii]
Another expert, Dr Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University,[iii] ‘‘Older people are more positive in their outlook and less inclined to negativity, have increased knowledge and expertise, are more given to reconciliation than confrontation, and have better balanced emotional lives. Study after study shows that older people are happier than middle aged or younger people.’
Growing wiser, less judgemental, and more compassionate as we grow older is something my friends and I discuss from time to time. We had to agree that not all older people are kind and wise. A plea in an agony column recently was from a daughter whose mother had grown more controlling and unkinder over the years to the point that the daughter felt that for her own mental health’s sake she had to move away. She wanted reassurance that she was doing the right thing. If this daughter had had some OT spray to hand, might it have helped?
But character development is a life-long process. We learn through hard times (Romans 5: 3-5). More than anything, we learn to ‘put on love’, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
It helps if you are raised in an atmosphere where role models (usually parents) show empathy and encouraging. An example is the young boy in this video encouraging a team member in a rugby match.
It reminds us of the power of encouragement. It’s a rocky road to developing a godly character. ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing,’ 1 Thessalonians 5:11.
[ii] The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, Random House Press, 1999
[ii] TED TALK, 2012