When I was in my 20s I could not imagine what it might be like to be old. I would not have believed it possible that one day the government would issue me with a ‘Seniors Card’ declaring that I am ‘a valued member of our community’ and asking for ‘every courtesy’ to be extended to me.
Actually, I still find it hard to believe that I have been given this card. Wasn’t I a valued member of the community when I was younger? Aren’t young people and old people equally entitled to courtesy?
Perhaps the purpose of the card is to warn young people that old people can be grumpy. A few days ago an elderly person - a person considerably older than me who has to cope with considerable pain and limited mobility - told me that a young man in a health services profession recently made a remark to her along the lines: ‘So, we are feeling a bit grumpy today, are we?’ She apparently tore strips off him (metaphorically) to teach him a lesson in courtesy. He now knows how she behaves when she is feeling particularly grumpy!
A few days ago another person mentioned to me that she had observed that the minor irritating behaviours that some of her friends had displayed when they were young have tended to worsen as they grow older. I think I have observed something similar, but I wonder whether the behaviour actually worsens or whether my threshold for irritation might have fallen as I have aged. There may be tendencies for both of these things to occur in some people. Some other people seem to improve with age.
In his book, ‘The Upside of Irrationality’, Dan Ariely provides a discussion of the long-term effects of short-term emotions, which may be helpful to an understanding of how some people develop habits of grumpiness. He provides experimental evidence that the way we respond to particular events when we are angry (even for unrelated reasons) can have an ongoing influence on our future decisions in similar circumstances and even become part of our identity.
The experiment involved influencing the mood of participants by showing them different videos chosen to make them feel either angry or happy, observing how they then respond to unfair treatment (unfair offers in the ultimatum game) and then observing how fairly they treat other people when roles are reversed. As might be expected, the angry participants were more likely to reject unfair offers. However, the offers that those participants subsequently made to other people tended to be fairer than the offers made by the happy participants who had accepted the unfair offers.
Ariely’s interpretation of the results seems to me to make sense. He suggests that the angry people tended to attribute their decision to reject the offer to its unfairness rather than to their emotional state and then to act as though they think other people are just like themselves. Similarly, the happy people who accepted the unfair offer would have tended to think that other people would be similarly willing to accept unfair offers. In both cases the decision made has an ongoing influence over future decisions, after the initial emotional state has passed.
The results are consistent with the idea that individuals have a tendency to interpret their own past decisions to indicate the kind of person they are and how the world works. A grumpy person who reacts negatively when some other person is perceived to be disregarding his or her commands is not necessarily acting out of character when showing generosity towards that person at other times. A decision made at the heat of the moment at some time in the distant past could have initiated a pattern of behaviour and sense of identity that prompts the person to act in this way. (The grumpiness shown at a particular time could, of course, be aggravated by pain or frustration.)
It is sometimes argued that society benefits from the actions of people who are prepared to sacrifice their own well-being in order to punish people who act unfairly. However, people who engage in such vindictive behaviour do not necessarily spend much time feeling grumpy. Chronic grumpiness is obviously undesirable for the individuals directly affected as well as for the victims of their grumpiness.
Dan Ariely’s research findings suggest an additional remedy for those of us who are concerned that we might become grumpier as we grow older. We should avoid making decisions while we feel grumpy!