The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)

Part III. MEDITATIONS

Chapter 15. Eighth Meditation: The Pro-Aging Industry

How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.

William James

In a study of elderly men and women, Becca Levy of Yale University School of Public Health found that people’s perceptions of aging significantly affected their longevity. Those with a positive view of old age lived on average more than seven years longer than those with a negative view.1 Levy’s research also demonstrated that a positive perception of old age affects the quality of life, leading those who accepted old age and the aging process to enjoy significantly higher levels of physical and mental health. One of Levy’s studies showed that activating positive stereotypes of aging (such as wisdom) improved elderly people’s memory, while activating negative stereotypes (such as senility) worsened their memory. Beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Cultures vary in their perceptions of old age; these perceptions, in turn, affect the beliefs of individuals within that culture and, consequently, their mental and physical health. American culture, for example, takes a generally negative view of aging, and Americans suffer significantly more memory loss in old age than Asians, who by and large come from cultures where getting older is looked upon favorably. It is easier, it seems, to become a Chinese sage than an American one.

Our beliefs about aging can also affect us when we’re young. If we perceive aging as something to be avoided, then we are likely to spend more time trying to escape the fate that awaits us. If, on the other hand, we appreciate and value old age, then we have much to look forward to and pursue. We enjoy greater mental and physical health when we spend our time pursuing a positive instead of avoiding a negative, especially when it is something as inescapable as age.

In America and other anti-aging cultures, millions of people take extreme measures—spending inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money—to reverse nature’s course. While there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to look younger and a lot that is right with maintaining our physical fitness throughout our lives, there is everything wrong with refusing to accept and obsessively fighting the natural process of aging.

To lead happier, healthier, and longer lives, we need to change our perception of aging by accepting reality for what it is. Whether we like it or not, we change over time, in some aspects for the better, in others for the worse. We are all well aware of the downside, especially the physical downside, of aging. But what we focus on less is that aging provides us with tremendous intellectual, emotional, and spiritual opportunities for growth.

My intention is not to romanticize old age but simply to make it real, both the good and the bad. It is, of course, true that growing old, at times, can bring about difficulties, such as ill health, impacting the elderly person in unexpected and unwanted ways. But it is equally true that there are potential benefits that come with age. What we are able to see and understand, know and appreciate, when we’re sixty or eighty is different from what we are capable of when we are twenty or thirty. There are no shortcuts to mental and emotional maturity; wisdom, judiciousness, intelligence, and perspective potentially develop with time and experience. Healthy aging is about actively accepting the real challenges that come with age, while appreciating the real opportunities that arise as we grow older.

For those with negative perceptions of old age, life becomes a battle against losing their youth, a battle they cannot win; the outcome is inevitably frustration and unhappiness—not just when they become old but when they are still young. In contrast, those who appreciate old age can derive much benefit from the natural process of aging and growing. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.”

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In what ways have you developed and improved over time, with age? How do you hope to continue to do so?

One of the reasons for the negative perception that some have toward aging is that, by and large, the younger generation today no longer looks to the older generation for advice; consequently, the young, and sometimes the elderly themselves, fail to see and appreciate the wisdom that can come with age. Technology, at least in part, is to blame. Today, because technological knowledge becomes obsolete before the ink dries, the order of nature has been reversed and the young are teaching the old. Generalizing from “technological knowledge” to “all knowledge,” many young people, believing that they have all the answers, do not respect the wisdom of their elders or appreciate the value of life experience.

An important part of cultivating an independent sense of self, a process that usually begins during the teenage years, is dismissing the wisdom of the older generation, enjoying that feeling of invincibility and the desire to live life on one’s own terms. While this may be natural and right for a teenager, a mature adult learns to learn from others, especially those who have more experience. Mark Twain famously captured this natural process from dismissal to appreciation: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

In the Bible we are commanded to “honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Today we have scientific evidence that illustrates the connection that the Bible makes, between honoring our parents, or the elderly in general, and longevity. When we honor and respect the wisdom of older people—be they our parents or others—when we spend time listening to them and learning from them, we become more appreciative of them and, by extension, of aging. And as the research shows, a positive view of old age makes us live longer—as well as better.

On the societal level, we would do well to divert some of the funds currently being invested in the anti-aging industry toward the creation, or improvement, of a pro-aging industry.2 This would mean, for instance, that we would be better off diverting money from cosmetics and plastic surgery to educational programs for lifelong learning.

Oscar Wilde once commented that “youth is wasted on the young”; in the case of those who do not appreciate the benefits of growing older, we can say that age is wasted on the elderly. Whether we are twenty or eighty, the choice between spending the rest of our life fighting nature’s course or embracing it is ours to make—right now.

EXERCISE

Image Learning from Elders

Engage in conversations with people who are older than you or who have more experience than you have in one area or another. What can you learn from them? Ask them about their life experiences—their mistakes and their triumphs—and what they have learned from those. Listen—really listen—to what they have to say.

While I certainly do not advocate putting our critical faculty aside as we absorb the advice of other people, young or old, I certainly do advocate being open to the wisdom that can only come with experience. Not only will we learn a great deal about our life, but we are also more likely to appreciate the elderly and thus cultivate a more positive view of old age.