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Ageing has had a bad press.
George Swingler looks at Life after 60 – does ageing bring with it an increased sense of meaning or does one become old on cue?


People sometimes say that 60 is the new 40.  I’m glad they’re wrong

The prospect of living longer than previous generations may be a mixed blessing, but chances are we’ll stay healthier for longer too. And wellbeing should improve as we go along




Research is consistently finding that older people have generally greater wellbeing than younger people. One study found well-being in the USA to be highest in the oldest group (82-85 years). Another study did find an eventual slight downturn, at around 90 years, but it remained higher than in early adulthood. A UK survey found personal wellbeing to peak earlier, between 65 and 79, but the “over 90” group were still feeling better than those in their middle years.

Surprised? Yes, ageing has had a bad press, even from the best of them. Shakespeare famously described old age as “second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.More recently, writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) said: “…the vast majority of mankind looks upon the coming of old age with sorrow or rebellion. It fills them with more aversion than death itself”. Earlier medical studies reinforced this impression by focusing on pathology, not wellbeing, in residential facilities where the worst affected older people lived.

This perspective became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our parents seemed mostly to read the script and become old on cue – at retirement, but Boomers have tended not to. Improved health helps. Mindset does too. There is mounting evidence that we are, to some extent, as old as we feel, or even as old as we choose to be. The way we live seems to affect how we age, with the usual suspects perhaps retarding ageing: exercise, healthy diet, sufficient sleep, optimism/gratitude, and mindfulness/meditation.

Ageing can be difficult nevertheless, given illness, loss of social status and financial challenge. It’s simplistic to say merely that older people are “happier”. It’s how we’re able to face the difficulties that makes the difference.

Our knowledge and experience helps, and we experience less negative emotion; such as stress, anger and worry. We also concentrate on positive information, and remember it better. We’re better at managing emotional conflict and can view injustice with compassion, but not despair. Although generally more positive, we can paradoxically experience sadness and happiness simultaneously.

Another paradox is that the realisation that we won’t live forever actually increases our enjoyment of life. We see priorities more clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters and selectively remember what’s important. In our bed of roses, we smell the roses and don’t focus on the thorns.

Oldsters invest in the more emotionally important aspects of life. We are more open and vulnerable, and marriages usually become more contented after age 70. Intriguingly, in one study the most liberal men remained sexually active more than 10 years longer than the most conservative. This finding is unexplained, and the effect of late-life political conversion was unfortunately not explored.

And last but definitely not least, ageing brings an increased sense of meaning and capacity for gratitude.


What can we do to maximise well-being?

Let’s hear it from Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, at age 82, after three decades of leading a more than 70-year follow-up study of the same men (and their families):

 Happiness is love. Full stop. But in order to permit love to make you fulfilled, you have to be able to take it in … to feel inside that you are loved … To push love away can destroy one’s life. But [taking it in] has an extraordinary restorative power and even if you have not had love in childhood … at 75 you can be very content and happy …

The ineffable quality called maturation is a life-long process. … The capacity of the brain to prioritise emotions enriches. And that is why statistically 70-year-olds are more content than 40-year-olds. …

Resentment makes people very unhappy, gratitude makes people very happy … so cultivate an attitude of gratitude and fake it till you make it.” (Neuroscience provides evidence that this actually works.)


The 450-to-1000-year-old tree above was already called the “Majesty Oak” back in 1793.
A photograph of the same tree hangs above Vaillant’s desk:
It has got all kind of scars, it has been burnt by forest fire, it has got broken branches and yet the magnificence of this tree shows the extraordinary wonders that age brings.”


Article by:  George Swingler
The Thinking Space

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