If you want to know how to age successfully, your best bet is to ask older adults who've figured out the secrets. These 15 wise individuals, all of whom lived well into their later years, provide a range of witty, wise, and even practical tips for finding fulfillment, no matter what your age.
"I had to wait 110 years to become famous. I wanted to enjoy it as long as possible." Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997)
The oldest documented living human, this French woman had all her wits about her when she reached the "super-centenarian" age of 110. With her jaunty smile, Calment charmed the world with her upbeat attitude toward aging and life.
"You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred." Woody Allen (1935- )
Unfortunately, this bon mot is somewhat true, though some of the longest-living individuals (including Calment) engaged in their share of bad habits. However, you can control your life span to the extent that you can avoid some of the unhealthy behaviors that cause people to die before reaching old age.
"Too many people, when they get old, think that they have to live by the calendar." John Glenn (1921-)
As the oldest person to board a U.S. Space Shuttle at age 77, Senator John Glenn exemplified the view that we shouldn't let age define us. The calendar is a useful way to let you know the date, but if you let yourself be hemmed in by your chronological age, you may lock yourself out of potentially valuable opportunities.
"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was*?" Satchel Paige (1906-1982)
Along the same lines as John Glenn's quote is that of this baseball legend who continued his successful career well into his 60s. We are so obsessed with age, Paige implies, that we allow it to define our identities. Break out of the mental set that makes you think of your age first, and your identity second.
*thank you to a reader who pointed out the quote may actually say "were," but it's also listed as "are," and as I have written here, "was."
"Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty." Coco Chanel (1983-1971)
Before the age of botox, this fashion icon wisely noted that the expressions you characteristically show will lead you to develop the lines that engrave your face as you get older. At 20, you have none of these lines, but by 50 your typical expression will have carved itself into your forehead and around your eyes and mouth. Smile and your facial wrinkles will have a friendlier feel.
"Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness." Edward Stanley (1826-1893)
Do you ever feel that you just don't have enough time to work out? Do you get to work early and stay late at the office, only to convince yourself that there are just not enough hours in the day to get to the gym? Back in the mid-1800s, this British stateman advocated, well ahead of his time, for the importance to health of getting regular physical activity. He didn't have the data to support this argument that we have now about the value of exercise, but his astute observation would withstand the most rigorous scientific test about the benefits of working out on a regular basis.
"I have reached an age when, if someone tells me to wear socks, I don't have to." Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Einstein seemed to have the ability to produce more witticisms than the average physicist. In this case, he expresses the sentiment that many older adults seem to feel, as evidenced by research showing that older adults have lower scores on a measure called "self-discipline." By the time they reach their later years, individuals feel better able to express themselves rather than being hemmed in by society's proscriptions.
"Do not try to live forever, you will not succeed." George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
This is somewhat of a discouraging message but not if you accept the fact that there are limits on longevity, meaning that life has finite limits. Of course, Shaw himself lived to a ripe old age. However, by recognizing that no one can live forever, you can avail yourself of the life you have, and enjoy it as much as possible.
"By the time you're eighty years old you've learned everything. You only have to remember it." George Burns (1896-1996)
The ultimate wise old man, George Burns (who played "God" in case you don't remember) expresses an observation that, although probably unknown to him, has its basis in empirical data about aging and memory. Researchers believe that one of the challenges to memory that older adults face is the ability to retrieve the information they have already acquired. With this knowledge, you can avail yourself of memory strategies that will allow you to maximize the ability to store and retrieve the memories you strive to retain.
"The wiser mind mourns less for what age takes away than what it leaves behind." William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
There are several layers of wisdom embedded in this quote. One is that as people get older, their wisdom is expressed by focusing on what is most important. Second, those adults who do focus on loss will be less able to maximize their mental powers, even in areas that traditionally seem vulnerable to the effects of aging. Third, by concentrating on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, your more positive mental set will allow you to take advantage of your mental powers, even if they're not quite what they were when you were younger.
"He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden." Plato (427-346 B.C.)
This wise observation from Plato harkens back to the findings of "Big Five" researchers Costa and McCrae, who observed that the most discontented younger adults were the ones most likely to experience the so-called "midlife crisis" in their 40s. Although personality change is possible at any time throughout life, people high on the trait of neuroticism seem to have disadvantages in adapting to the challenges of midlife and beyond.
"At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don't care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven't been thinking of us at all." Ann Landers (1918-2002)
The guru of advice columns (along with her twin sister, Abigail Von Buren), Ann Landers reminds us that as people get older, they move away from the egocentric concerns of youth to the more realistic perceptions of midlife and older adults, who realize that they are not the center of the universe. As a result, older adults are free to do what they want, not constrained by what they construe to be the opinions of others (who themselves are thinking only about themselves).
"Old age hath yet his honour and his toil." Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
I like this quote as an opening to my lecture on aging and work. Although we tend to think of older adults as less productive employees than their younger counterparts, the opposite is true. From the age of 55 and onwards, workers are better employees in terms of their reliability and even, in many vocational fields, of productivity. We might wish that aging carried with it more "honour" than it does in a society that seems to value youth, but as Tennyson pointed out, there are many reasons that it should.
"Because I could not stop for death – He kindly stopped for me." Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Emily Dickinson's quotes are some of the most quotable in all of psychology, and this is no exception. The idea that death can be "kind" fits with what experts in the field of death and dying call the "tame" view of death. It's not that death steals us of life, but that it brings us to a beneficent ending.
"Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be." Robert Browning (1812-1889)
This very inspiring characterization of old age fits with the concept of "successful aging," provides the view that it is possible to enjoy your later years in a way that exceeds your expectations.
"Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength." Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
One of the founders of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan continued to inspire women throughout her life, writing about her experiences with aging in The Fountain of Age. In this quote, Friedan captures the concept of successful aging. Let's redefine later life as a time of growth instead of inevitable decline.
By sharing these wise, witty, and insightful quotes, I hope I've inspired you to think more positively about your own aging and to gain a better perspective on ways to live as productively and as long as you can.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012