What Does “Mature” Mean?

When you call someone "mature," what do you mean?

Here’s my rough pass at defining it.

Emotional maturity indicates your ability to: manage your emotional state, adapt your behavior to your environment (know when to be silly and when to be serious), read and respond to social cues, not let one-off events hijack your system, and avoid hitting the extremes of the joy-misery continuum on a regular basis (ie, ecstasy and misery should be infrequent events).

Intellectual maturity is about knowing what you don’t know (ie, knowing the limits of your own knowledge), deploying what you know in way that’s coherent and consistent, entertaining ideas different from your own and accounting for such differences in your worldview, and in general bowing down to my friend Eliezer and his twelve virtues of rationality and avoiding the many corruptive heuristics he outlines on Overcoming Bias.

Note that someone can be mature but also lighthearted, funny, laid-back, etc. In other words, mature is not synonymous with uptight.

While we’ve all met exceptions, in general emotional maturity and age are highly correlated. The younger you are, the less emotionally mature. Intellectual maturity seems less correlated with age. While it’s hard for me to think of an adult who regresses on the emotional maturity scale, it’s easy to think of adults who have become so set in their beliefs that they become less intellectually mature. They are less interested in tracking truth than confirming long-standing beliefs. Their total knowledge might be more than a young person, but how they deploy that knowledge is less sound.

This theory is not road-tested, so I’m interested in your comments and revisions. How do you think about "mature"? Do you think about it in these two categories? Do you, like me, have a gut feeling on someone’s emotional maturity soon after meeting him or her?

20 comments on “What Does “Mature” Mean?
  • I don’t know Ben. It seems like your definition of emotional maturity is the ability to be happy, but great artists and thinkers are rarely happy, arguably clinically depressed, and oftentimes the joy they feel is grimly forced or manic. Yet few would argue that Nietzsche or James or O’Brien are immature.

    I think maturity is fairly undefinable when it comes to emotional maturity, intellectual maturity, et cetera. Physical maturity is straightforward. However, who is more mature–the woman who marries the man she somewhat loves who will support her and her family, or the woman who marries the love of her life because she realizes that material happiness is fleeting?

    Maybe we define maturity based on what we feel is most right, what we most want to develop in ourselves, et cetera. There happen to be broad, agreed-on definitions because oftentimes the goal of a people are determined by the society they live in.

    Okay I’ve gone too far. Email/text me when you get this to confirm, I want to make sure my comments are getting through.

  • Ben,

    Great post. Perhaps I can offer the following:

    Emotional maturity also consists of a willingness to continually engage in self-appraisal. Our ability to see reality and be honest with ourselves is the cornerstone to emotional maturity.

    Additionally, there’s spiritual maturity. That feeling of ok-ness with ourselves and the world around us. That peace of mind that comes when we accept that, although we may not know where we’re going, we don’t feel lost anymore. Finally, for me it means that I can be surrounded by a world in chaos, but I don’t have to sell my soul – to become a product of that world – to deal with it and live in it.

    • Love your spiritual maturity definition. So true! Needed that defined for me today. In many ways, I my spiritual maturity has been strong. Then gets clouded by my less mature parts that I decide I should be paying attention to. πŸ˜‰

  • Got straight from life:

    The tenacity to wait bad times out; (It visits all and will soon pass)

    The ability to recognize what could be fixed from what can’t be; (Not wasting time on futilities)

    Stopping from falling for a bait, not so obvious; (Why would someone give me something for free?)

    Refusing to yield to inordinate pressure; (Why is she so desperate?)

    Fading memories of past bad times in present good times (It could be headwinds tomorrow)

    Shorting the horses before cars hit the road; (just plain common sense)

  • My parents were obsessed with their notion of “adulthood”/”maturity” – I assume that their traumatic teenagehoods consisted of not being regarded as adult enough to satisfy them, though I don’t really know. I know that they kept on offering me advice on how to be perceived as “mature”, saying, if you do this, if you don’t do that, you won’t be “adult”. And I witnessed how this would screw them up – how they would refuse to take advice from my grandparents, because they were now the “adults”, and they weren’t about to mess that up by taking advice from their parents.

    You should have criteria of judgment – moral, aesthetic, scientific, whatever – besides how “mature” something seems. Worry about getting it right, not getting it adult.

    What’s the point of standing on such formalities, when we’re all less then a thousand years old, and hence juveniles by the standards of future galactic civilization? Imagine them laughing at you, in the history books, if you pretend to be old; maybe they’ll respect you if you aspire to do good in the world.

    And for the sake of flexibility, let age be a verb, not a noun – something you do, not something you are. I aspire to young or old as the need takes me.

  • Actually, on reflection, I agree that most of what you list as “maturity” is desirable, but I think we’re better off thinking of these as wise strategies, rather than age-related personal characteristics. If one day you hit an unnecessary extreme of depression, do you want to think “I must really be such an immature person deep down” or “I’m using the wrong strategy today”? Our beliefs about our personal characteristics are often traps.

  • Ben, I enjoyed reading this one.

    My take on “emotional & intellectual” maturity:

    The phrase “be mature” makes me think of all the people I’ve encountered who were tired of trying to grow like a child tries to grow (through trial and error, through great passions and defeats) and wanted me to know it. They would say “be mature” about _________ (anything could go here) and it would be synonymous with saying “I’m just not going to try like I used to… I know it’s useless now, so I’ll just ‘do as the Romans do’ and go the traditional, boring way.”

    To reiterate, I have seen the word “maturity” used more often when someone wanted to brush off new ideas or simply stop trying to struggle to create something phenomenally new and beautiful.

    Hope that makes sense!

    I think emotional/intellectual maturity is what you make of it. People use the word too often in a sadly judgmental way.

    My take on “physical maturity.”

    Lastly, I can for some reason, see lonely or unfulfilled feeling middle aged women saying (with almost a discomforting but frankly understandable awe) to their middle aged friends “ohhhhh… your son has grown up and just looks so very mature…”

    This happens about the time when a young man’s balls drop and yes, they are referring to nothing but physical maturity. Am I right?

    Hope your readers felt it was mature for me to point that one out πŸ™‚

  • This seems like a good definition to me. Re: this comment:

    but great artists and thinkers are rarely happy, arguably clinically depressed, and oftentimes the joy they feel is grimly forced or manic

    I’ll wager they didn’t feel that way when they were doing their art. The book Flow talks about the role of engagement in happiness.

    And even if they did, creating great work is not the same as maturity. History is full of immature cranks who nevertheless produced great art and science. John O’Ohara was definitely immature.

  • Joe:

    You write: “Lastly, I can for some reason, see lonely or unfulfilled feeling middle aged women saying (with almost a discomforting but frankly understandable awe) to their middle aged friends “ohhhhh… your son has grown up and just looks so very mature…””

    This reminds me of a scene in About A Boy where Hugh Grant’s character is asked by friends to be godfather to their neo-nate girl. Amongst other excuses why he is not such great godparent material, he says: “… and let’s face it, when she is 18, I am going to try and shag her”.

    Then you say: “This happens about the time when a young man’s balls drop and yes, they are referring to nothing but physical maturity. Am I right?”

    You are, of course, right!

    Somehow for some reason, most lonely and unfulfilled-feeling middle-aged men, as the stereotype goes, will of course try to shag a “mature” girl instead of tut-tutting over her maturity, no?

    Just a thought!

  • I’ve never heard anyone else refer to maturity the same way I do. My favourite description of maturity is this: “My father taught me (by example; he never said this out loud) that maturity is knowing when you’re supposed to behave like an adult, and when it’s OK to behave like a child.” It’s nice to know that someone else has observed that fact (“maturity does not equal being uptight”).

    Come to think of it, I was about your age when I figured this out… πŸ™‚

  • One of the most crucial, yet rarely noticed, qualities of maturity is what poet John Keats called negative capability, which he defined in 1817 as the ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

    In other words, you can abide in uncertainty, even holding two contradictory truths in mind, without “irritably” invoking a rational system in the hopes of resolving them (which usually means shutting one or the other of them out of consciousness.)

    This is a very subtle gauge of maturity — in fact, it’s one that’s hard to understand unless you’re pretty mature already. But I think about it a lot.

  • Being born to two persons who made such a wretched mess of their lives that I regarded them as aliens (they couldn’t possibly be my real parents) led me to become an artist.

    I had no models of mature behavior, but at least in the act of creation I found the freedom denied to me as the slave and prisoner of their nightmare world.

    Only in art could I express my feelings– so they mocked my poetry and destroyed the painting I made of the peaceful planet I dreamed of.

    They ground my spirit into the dirt, but I always believed that my work was a living thing they couldn’t kill.

    I finally escaped from the alien zoo, but ironically, without something to struggle against my art suffered, and as I pursued life with the heady rush of newfound freedom, I abandoned it.

    It took me tears to realize that maturity isn’t a point on a timeline– it’s an ongoing process of evolution, and the continuing rebirth of my creative soul.

    So I was right all along.

    My art is alive, and it saved me.

  • I personally think everyone is right on this subject matter. It encompasses a wide range of thought, emotion, and experience.

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