As a geriatric psychiatrist who has treated patients in their 80s and 90s for more than 25 years, I’ve had a front row seat for aging well. I see what works and what doesn’t, and I can tell you this; there is no pill, potion, procedure or exercise plan that will truly guarantee a longer or better life. The not-so-secret formula that does seem to make a difference in terms of both surviving and thriving can be reduced to two words: purpose and positivity.
What’s the Benefit to Aging in the First Place?
“Even if I could have done, when I was young, what I am doing now – I wouldn’t have dared.” – Henri Matisse
Too many of us define aging by the expected declines, losses and diseases. Even at midlife we begin to put down aging and only think about how to slow it, ignore it or try to find ways to look, feel or act young again. But ask yourself this question: when did you make better decisions — at your current age or when you were twenty? Could you know and do everything today the same as when you were much younger? The answer is obvious: No! Aging has given you the experience, knowledge, and skills that comprise your current mental and emotional strengths. We call this wisdom, and it comes in many forms. And it keeps growing and developing with age.
Our brains tend to use more regions to solve problems, and the ways in which we think become less impulsive, emotionally reactive and ideological. We are truly better at making decisions because of age! But there is a key ingredient needed to optimize this process: positive attitudes. Research has shown that when we believe we can do something well, our performance is better than if we harbor negative attitudes. The stereotypes and attitudes we have about aging, good or bad, translate into action. Most stunning is research showing that individuals with more positive attitudes towards aging live about seven years longer than those without.
There is another factor that helps us leverage aging: purpose. A growing body of research has shown that individuals with higher levels of purpose have fewer heart attacks and strokes, and generally feel and age better and longer. With purpose, we can discover new ways of living that go above and beyond mere survival. Purpose brings us into new relationships, interests, causes and connections. Purpose provides a bridge beyond retirement and into a bevy of age-enhanced roles as volunteers, hobbyists, philanthropists, activists, grandparents, and mentors.
Thriving with Positivity and Purpose
“I have needed all that time to reach the stage where I can say what I want to say.”– Henri Matisse
When we face the inevitable stresses of age, positivity enables us to have hope that things will get better. When we get stuck, purpose shows us the way forward and motivates us to make necessary changes. Positivity and purpose are the two most important factors for finding ways to thrive as we age. The remaining question is how to get there. I’d offer the following straightforward strategies:
Take stock of your assets. If you’ve been fortunate and have planned well, you already have a burgeoning financial portfolio. Now write down your own personal portfolio. Instead of stocks, bonds and insurance, make a list of your main knowledge, skills, interests and goals. Ask someone close to help you create a complete inventory. You will be pleasantly surprised at everything you have gained over time. This is the sum of your wisdom, and it should fill you with pride and a positive view of all you’ve gained with age.
Write About Your Greatest Challenge. What was the greatest challenge you’ve faced and had to overcome? How did you do it? When we have to face adversity and find a path forward, we reveal our true purpose in life. What did your own journey reveal? What is your purpose now? How do you see it in the future? I’ve worked with individuals who faced terrible wartime or other trauma but discovered a sense of hope, persistence and value in life that fills them with immense purpose to care for others.
Make a Plan. Armed with all your wisdom, positive attitudes and purpose, make a plan for your future. What do you want to accomplish? What’s on your bucket list? What do you want your legacy to be? Thriving is all about growing and developing, reworking or renewing something from your past or reinventing yourself into something or someone new. Aging has given you new tools to do this well.
Start Small and Grow. Start with something doable and go from there. Want to write a novel? Start by writing recollections, a travel journal, poems, family stories or blogs to share with family and friends. Test the waters with your writing and see how it goes. Want to run in a marathon? Start walking on a regular basis, and find a gym, class or a trainer to start off with basic stretches and conditioning. When you couple these plans with a positive attitude towards your existing personal assets, and a purpose to motivate you into the future, that is when you begin to truly thrive.
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Marc E. Agronin, M.D. is a nationally-known expert on aging and mental health issues in late life. His belief that aging is a dynamic force for the growth and development of unique strengths is presented in his new book The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life as well as in his acclaimed book How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. Dr. Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health where he runs a memory and research center. He is the creative force behind the first dementia village in the United States and its empathy-based care model being developed in Miami. He writes and blogs regularly for the Experts Panel on health and retirement issues for The Wall Street Journal. Visit him online at www.marcagronin.com.
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