Those who see aging as an evolution, rather than a loss, stay healthy longer.
Were you born between 1982 and 1994? If so, that makes you a millennial; it also means that you’ve likely just entered your 40s. For many people, this may also mean you’ll start to feel old — at least, according to the Wall Street Journal. Quoting a study by a global market research firm, the Journal recently reported that 43 is “the average age when Americans stop feeling young.”
Maybe you’ve noticed that you can no longer get by on only a few hours of sleep each night; maybe you need to warm up before you work out, or maybe you don’t recover as quickly from an evening out anymore. More than just feeling old, though, there’s also just “not feeling young.” A former football player quoted in the same WSJ article said he believed people were “afraid [of] the signs of age, and not being able to do what they [once] did.”
It’s true that some people adjust less comfortably to aging than others do; they may experience these changes as a form of loss. You may know people who seem to reminisce constantly or withdraw into their memories rather than staying interested in the contemporary world or forging ahead to stay productive. Perhaps you yourself have worried about what retirement might be like, and whether all that free time will leave you feeling restless.
This society’s media-saturated bias against aging doesn’t help us see getting older in a good way. Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., author of Aging Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias and How to End It, points out that we live in an entire culture that is antithetical to aging; she blames the profit motive. “Media in particular plays on fears and shame over aging, thus encouraging the multi-billion-dollar anti-aging consumer industry,” she wrote. “We live in a culture that shames us and dictates standards of beauty,” she said recently (Tracey Gendron, personal communication, May 2023). Gendron explained that Americans are constantly and thoroughly bombarded with messages that depict aging in false or misleading ways, conveying certain negative preconceptions.
This culture-wide pessimism, programmed into us by advertising and popular culture, seems to be working directly against one of the best ways to maintain subjective well-being: having an optimistic outlook. Psychologists Scheier & Carver, in a 2018 review article, concluded that each person’s personality affects the way in which they react to significant or challenging life circumstances, and that “dispositional optimism”—the stable expectation for positive outcomes—may facilitate better ways of coping. Less recently, Bettini et al. (2006) named some of the qualities that help people cope with aging: autonomy, self-acceptance, reassuring religious beliefs, and having a close network of family or friends. Generally, people who adjust well to aging have many deep interests, enjoy a measure of independence, maintain social relationships with people of all ages, worry fairly little about themselves or their loved ones, and enjoy their present-day activities without experiencing too much regret about the past.
So there are ways to focus less on what aging appears to mean to American culture and more on what it can mean for each of us, individually. “The good news is that we don’t have to conform to [the culture’s negative standards for aging],” Gendron affirms. “Perhaps the best coping mechanism is empowering ourselves to define beauty and success differently—according to our standards.”
What might get us here—now that’s the trick. Gendron agrees with those who hold that anxiety and stress can take a toll on the body, eventually converting emotions into physical illness or dysfunction (see Yaribeygi et al, 2017). But although exercising frequently and eating well, for instance, may help us mitigate these negative effects, Gendron points out that these health-maintaining behaviors actually don’t have the most prominent influence on longevity. (Neither does wealth, for those who might wonder if having lots of money is the easiest way to stay young.)
Levy et al. (2002), authors of an eye-catching study of the effect of one’s views on aging on longevity, conclude that the way people feel about growing older has more of an effect on the length of their lifespan than any other factor—including “age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health.” It’s worth reiterating: In that study, Yale psychologist Becca Levy and her colleagues isolated beliefs about aging as the single most prominent lifespan-extending factor. Study participants who maintained sunnier perceptions of their own aging were able to live, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who had less positive age-related beliefs. Of course, staying physically healthy, maintaining good social relationships, and achieving financial comfort can still help, but according to Levy, the way you feel about aging has an effect that is more powerful still.
Even in the best of circumstances, though, people who live a long time are likely to go through quite a few ups and downs along the way. They may start to feel as though their bodies don’t work as well, or look as good, as they once did. They may lose close friends or watch loved ones fall ill. They may have difficulty retiring from a lifelong career. These moments can unfairly dominate our perspective as we age. “We tend to focus mostly on the process of physical decline rather than acknowledging and celebrating all of the growth and development that also occur,” Gendron says. In these cases, the best way to manage the experience of losses like these may be to remember that you’re not only aging, you’re growing. “Recognizing how we continue to learn and evolve emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically helps us contextualize aging [as a] holistic and dynamic process,” Gendron writes. Remember graduating from high school? That was a significant loss, as you probably left your friends and your familiar environment behind. But later in life, or in college, you very likely discovered new interests and developed new friendships that you enjoyed just as much or more.
Growing older can be very much the same: You may experience losses, but you’re also evolving, and becoming something new and original, as time goes by. (It’s probably not too difficult to think of several ways in which you’ve grown into a better person than you once were.) Every day you’re alive, Gendron says, you become more uniquely yourself, by accruing an extensive set of distinctive experiences that no other person has ever had. Remember, then, when you consider the losses inherent in growing old, that you also have the chance to be something new: by pursuing new ideas, meeting new people, learning new things, and following new interests until they become incorporated into a new—older, but possibly better off—version of yourself. Perhaps with this outlook, you can hold off the culturally prescribed bias against aging and maintain your optimism about the changes in your future.
Ansberry, C. (2023, May 5). The Age When You Stop Feeling Young. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/millennials-turning-40-feeling-old-1df2c83b
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Gendron, T. (Contributor). (2023, March 29). Good sport [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from (https://www.ted.com/podcasts/good-sport/after-the-glory-fades-transcript).
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