By Ron Pevny
What do you believe your later years will look like? Many of us never think about the beliefs we carry inside us as our months become years and years turn into decades. Your beliefs may well determine the answer to this question.
In recent years, a host of research has been adding its voice to the age-old wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions in emphasizing the importance of belief and attitude in determining how our lives unfold. Some compelling and well-publicized research was done in the Yale School of Public Health by professor Becca Levy. In the study, a very large number of middle age people were interviewed six times over the course of 20 years. They were asked whether they agreed with statements like: “As you get older, you’re less useful.” What they found was the perceptions held by people about aging had more impact on how long they lived more than their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, whether or not they smoked, or even if they exercised.
The study found that people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with negative images of growing older. They also discovered that those with negative images of aging not only had compromised health and shortened lives but also had more distress and depression in the present. People with negative perceptions of aging were more likely to consider their lives in the present worthless, empty or hopeless. Whereas those with more positive perceptions of aging were more likely to view their lives as fulfilling, joyful, meaningful and with a purpose.
The Connection Between Belief and Aging
There are two very different sets of beliefs about aging. Since the “modern” era began, aging has largely been seen as a time of decline, loss, and withdrawal from active contribution. Look up the word “retire” in the dictionary. Most of the definitions include the word “withdraw.” Accompanying this view is the belief, held in both overt and subtle ways, that once we retire, “It’s all downhill from here.” Our best years are over, by and large having made our significant contribution to society. Losing a sense of purpose and meaning along with a waning passion for life is to be expected. The best we can do is hold on to who we have been for as long as possible, do our best to stay healthy, enjoy life to the extent our health and finances will allow, find things to keep us occupied and hope things turn out okay.
Contrast this with another set of beliefs that sees aging as a process of character development analogous to the development of fine wine over time. Aging is understood as a necessary prerequisite for developing wisdom which only comes from experience and reflection upon it. This stage of our life provides time and opportunity for focusing on our deepest values, our personal development, our spiritual life and our relationships with our loved ones and communities. These decades are not just the final chapter after we have passed our prime, but rather a time full of possibility for fulfillment, meaning, passion and active community engagement—if we consciously work to make them so.
A Positive Outlook on Aging
If we resonate in some way with this second view of aging, there is a critical first step which must be taken. Whether we are past so-called ‘retirement age’ or in mid-life and just coming to think about our elder years, it is important to explore, with as much honesty as possible, the beliefs we hold about aging. Living in a youth-obsessed society, we have been surrounded by disempowering beliefs which have become ingrained in our minds with the result that we are now strongly influenced by them. One way to know how much they affect us is to honestly look at the fears and beliefs we carry about aging. We can reflect on questions such as these, and do our best to truthfully answer them:
- Do I try to convince myself and others that I am not getting older? If so, what beliefs about aging does this reflect? How does it benefit me to continue to hold these beliefs?
- Do I believe that once I reach retirement age, it’s basically all downhill from here? If so, why?
- What is the vision I have for what my elder years can be? If it is a positive, empowering vision, am I willing to live intentionally so that my vision can become reality? If I have no vision or a negative vision and am content with letting things unfold as they will, will that serve my well-being as I age?
- Do I believe my worth is primarily tied to what I can do, or is it a reflection of the kind of person I can be? Which of these beliefs will best serve me as I age?
- Do I see my life as an unfolding process of inner growth, or is growth not something important to me? If I consider growth important, what opportunities can aging offer me?
- Do I believe I can move forward gracefully in the face of loss, which increases and accompanies aging? If so, how can I further strengthen my resilience? If not, why not?
- Do I believe it is of value to stretch beyond my comfort zone in order to find fulfillment as I grow older? If so, am I willing to do so?
- Do I believe I can learn from people I know or who seem to be models for aging well? Can I learn from people who seem to age without joy and purpose.? Am I willing to observe, reflect and learn from both types of people?
- Do I believe that my beliefs make a difference in how my life turns out?
The more we engage in denial of our aging and allow ourselves to buy into our culture’s belief that older adults are largely irrelevant, the greater our risk of being painfully unprepared for the inevitable losses which accompany the journey through our elder life chapters. At the same time, we will miss unique opportunities. We have the power to choose the beliefs that shape our lives. We have the power to act intentionally in charting a course for an elder-hood with purpose, passion, service and continual growth in whatever circumstances life presents.
Preparing for Our Elder Years with Belief
If we are in midlife, it is not too early to begin focusing on the development of those personal qualities and beliefs that will best support a vital elder-hood. Most of us begin many years before retirement preparing financially for the elder third or fourth of our life. Therefore, it is just as important to prepare emotionally and spiritually for it as well.
If we are in our 60s, 70s and beyond, it is certainly not too late. Using the power of positive beliefs, commitment to continual growth, refusal to let ourselves be marginalized because of our age, and dedication to making a difference through serving others, our elder years can be the pinnacle of our development as human beings. Such an elder-hood will only happen if we are willing to believe it can be our reality and to do the inner work of growing into that reality.