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It can feel alternately thrilling and frightening, hopeful and depressing, to think about how and if you’ll change over the course of your life: When does your personality really kick in? How will major events and relationships shape your character? Are you stuck with yourself more or less the way you are? Is that a good thing?
The answer to that last question in particular depends on how old you are when it’s asked. Think of yourself as changing simultaneously along two different tracks: Your personality is malleable, and your self-esteem is, too. The various parts of who you are shift constantly throughout your lifetime, but so does your relationship to the resulting whole. And according to a review paper recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, that relationship improves steadily over the first several decades of your life, finally peaking at age 60.
The paper’s authors drew more than 300 previously published studies on self-esteem — defined as “a person’s subjective evaluation of his or her worth as a person” — in different age groups, identifying a pattern that held steady across birth year, gender, and nationality: It increased consistently (with a brief plateau in early adolescence) until the highest point at 60, where it stayed for the next decade, declining slightly in a person’s 70s and 80s and then dropping a little more sharply beginning at age 90.
As with anything in life, there are multiple ways to view this curve. One is with impatience: It really takes that many years to reach the height of feeling good about yourself? Another is with foreboding, knowing that your last years are spent watching your self-esteem slowly deplete as you stare down the end of life. (There’s also unmitigated excitement: I already think I’m pretty great now, so the 60s should be a blast.)
Mostly, though, the pattern feels sweetly encouraging. The vast majority of life is spent either building up to or riding through that peak of appreciating yourself. For those still on the way there, it’s a milestone, and a luxury, to look forward to: Reaching peak self-esteem also means peak who cares? You’re confident not only in who you are, but in what you like. You can get rid of most things in your closet and walk around in flowy pants and billowy cardigans 300 days of the year, if you want, for no other reason than just because you want to.
You spend so much time on the upswing, and then, 60 years in, you finally get to reap the reward for all that time and effort you’ve spent figuring yourself out. Not fully, because who can ever really know themselves fully? But enough to have a reasonable understanding of who you are, to be at peace with that understanding, and, at least for a while, to revel in it. And to wear whatever the hell you want.