Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Aging Gracefully

Flexibility, openness, and good habits might give us an edge later in life.

High school reunions are existentially loaded. They feel a bit like the moment depicted in too many films when, in old age or just before death, we see a rapid slide show of our younger selves that leads disturbingly quickly to images of our older selves. People who are frozen in our minds at age 18 reveal themselves to no longer be 18. And everyone walks around acutely aware of the passage of time.

Last weekend I attended my 20th. While previous reunions were more empowering and exciting (I was so glad to face my high school peers without being trapped in the confines of my high school self), this one felt, for me, a bit more meditative.

Ten years ago, I found something gratifying in seeing predictable plot lines play out. When the first friends’ marriages I had predicted to fail failed, I was kind of shocked, but also excited to see a narrative arc unfold in real life.

In high school, every outcome seemed possible. We might or might not end up conservative like our parents. We might or might not follow our father’s footsteps and become a lawyer or a professor. We might make more or less money than we grew up with.

But many of those doors closed quickly. A tremendous number of people in my class have lives that were predictable given the socioeconomic status, education level, and political beliefs with which they were raised. In my late 20s, this fact both interested me and disappointed me. But in my late 30s, I feel kind of bored by it.

What excites me now is the exceptions: the nerdy guy who is now confident and hot, the anti-establishment Goth girl who is now a glamorous and successful photographer, the gregarious soccer player who is now overweight and bitter.

These examples of plasticity are also what I like most about the Harvard Grant Study’s conclusions. The study, which began in 1938, followed Harvard men into their 90s, attempting to ascertain the ingredients of happiness and success over the lifespan. In publishing his findings George Vaillant, who’s been running the study since 1966, offers novel data about the possibilities for growth and flourishing. He concludes that people who do well in old age didn’t necessarily do well in midlife, and that marriages bring a lot more satisfaction after age 70. He documents the fact that it is possible to overcome an unhappy childhood. And he argues that our physical aging later in life is affected much more by the habits we establish before age 50 than by our genetic makeup (Vaillant, 2012).

The problem with a culture that doesn’t value, admire, or even respect aging is that we tend to think about aging as solidifying. We think of ourselves as getting more fixed in our beliefs and weaknesses, rather than retaining the ability to change and grow. The idea that character is fixed and that our personal qualities are predetermined and unchangeable is outdated. But it’s also self-fulfilling.

We fail to age gracefully, in part, because we stop imagining new possibilities for ourselves. Because we follow the most logical arc of the script we began with. Graceful aging, to me, is defined by flexibility and possibility. It’s choosing, and then making real, a path that was not at all predicted for you. It’s being a good parent despite having been raised by crappy ones. It’s having a strong, successful marriage on the heels of a messy one that ended in divorce. Twenty years out, these are the stories that capture me. I no longer care about the guy who drank all the time in high school and is now an alcoholic. That kind of predictability is dull.

References

Vaillant, G. (2012), Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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