SPECIAL FROM BetterAfter50
By Anne Kreamer
What words would you associate with being old? I asked a few people recently, and here are just some of the words they used: fuddy-duddy, not fresh, decrepit, sad, wrinkly, tired, stiff, brittle, unhappy, invisible, obsolete, diminished, fat, fragile, cranky, and marginalized.
Wise and experienced were the two positive words that came up, but only after I pushed to see if there might be anything good about getting older.
What’s wrong with this picture?
According to a report published in the Bottom Line Health Newsletter, by Becca Levy, Ph.D. from the Yale School of Public Health, it is not an idle question, and how you answer it is clearly linked to your health.
In a variety of different kinds of tests, Yale researchers studied what effect perceptual issues about aging might have on health.
First, they asked a group of septuagenarians what words they used to describe an old person. According to Levy’s article, they discovered that “those who had stereotypes like ‘feeble’ and ‘senile’ had significantly more hearing loss than those who had positive associations with age such as ‘wise’ and ‘active.’”
In a different study, the researchers followed the recovery patterns of recent heart attack patients and found that those who thought about aging in a more positive way recovered more quickly and successfully.
In an activity as simple as walking, the Yale team’s research revealed that even when playing with stereotypes on an extremely subtle level by subliminally flashing words like “alert” or “mature” to one group and “senile” or “decrepit” to another resulted in the participants in the positive group subsequently walking faster and with better balance.
Levy believes these negative stereotypes of aging are so deeply entrenched in our culture that we are oblivious to them. And rejecting them is not a PC thing –- it’s a selfish means to living better.
Levy believes that “becoming aware of their presence in everyday life is a first step toward questioning their validity.” She suggests that keeping a journal to become more sensitized to positive images and embodiments of aging could have significant health benefits.
Here are some further suggestions:
- Become aware when you automatically default into a negative stereotype about getting old.
- Create a roster of older people whom you admire – Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Jane Goodall, Paul Newman, Betty Ford, Madeline Albright, George H.W. Bush, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, John Updike, Judi Dench.
- Really understand that a balanced view of aging can help you change your attitude in a way that can make a difference in the long-term quality of your life.
Anne Kreamer is the author of Going Gray, What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters.
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Health was "extremely important" to happiness for 73 percent of respondents. People in "good or excellent" health are three times more likely to report being "very" happy. Interestingly, what may matter most is how healthy you <em>think</em> you are: The AARP found that the percentage of people reporting good health is relatively stable over the 35-80 age range, varying only seven percentage points. That's despite the fact that objectively, older people are in fact not as healthy: The number of people who report they are suffering two or more medical conditions increased 400 percent over the 35-80 age range. (People may be comparing their health to their peers who are in worse shape.)
Some 68 percent of respondents called relationships "extremely important" to happiness. Some 72 percent of people who were married or in a relationship called themselves "very happy" or "pretty happy" -- compared to 60 percent of singles. AARP asked respondents to rank the importance of certain activities to happiness, and many of those scoring at the top were relationship-related: 72 percent said "kissing or hugging someone you love"; 72 percent said "watching your children, grandchildren or close relative succeed in what they want to do"; 69 percent said "spending time with your family and friends such as a meal or social gathering'; and 64 percent said "experiencing a special moment with a child." However, relationships did have to be real: "connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook" came in 37th out of 38 activities in contributing to happiness.
Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said pleasure was "extremely important" to happiness. Among the simple pleasures that were most important to the happiness of people 50 to 80: enjoying natural beauty like a sunset or ocean (64 percent); having someone do something nice for you unexpectedly (56 percent); practicing religious or spiritual faith (50 percent); making progress on personal goals (47%); and being absorbed in a favorite hobby or interest (42 percent).
Four in ten of those surveyed called accomplishment "extremely important" to happiness.
Meaning And Engagement
Meaning and engagement were considered "extremely important" to happiness among 38 and 37 percent of respondents, respectively.
Some 31 percent of respondents said money was "extremely important" to happiness. Money was slightly more important to people who earned $25,000 or less. As psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, <a href="http://www.moneyandhappiness.com/blog/?p=1053" target="_hplink">beyond a household income of $75,000, experienced well-being no longer increases</a>, although people's judgment of how satisfied they are with their lives does continue to increase. At the same time, severe poverty amplifies life's misfortunes, such as illness or divorce. The AARP study found similar results: Income and happiness were positively correlated; when comparing the percentage of those "Very Happy" by income ranges, the slope increases up to the $75,000 mark, then continued to rise even more dramatically. Asked how they would spend $100 on something to increase happiness, most respondents said they would spend it on their family or going out to dinner. This correlates with findings that show <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090207150518.htm" target="_hplink">buying experiences makes people happier than buying things</a>.
A Sense Of Control Over Happiness
People who feel they are in control of their happiness report that they are 2.5 times happier than those who believe happiness is out of their control. A sense of control is linked to higher income, higher education, good health and not experiencing a major life event in the past year. This finding also mirrors decades of research suggesting <a href="http://moneyandhappiness.com/get_happy.htm" target="_hplink">autonomy -- the feeling that your actions are self-chosen and self-endorsed</a> -- is a core psychological need. Studies have found people who lack a sense of control -- prisoners, nursing home residents, people living under totalitarian governments -- suffer lower morale and poor health, according to David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Michigan and author of "The Pursuit of Happiness." Interestingly, a sense of control over one's happiness rises with age -- with 69 percent of people age 75 to 80 feeling they have control over their happiness, versus about half of people age 40 to 54. It may be that with the wisdom of the years, people recognize that happiness is a choice.
Spending time with a pet can be a substantial way to contribute to one's happiness, the survey found, especially for older women: 81 percent of women age 66 to 80 who own pets said spending time with them contributes "a lot" to personal happiness. It was also important to two-thirds of singles.