Must Life Go Downhill As You Age, Or Do You Have a Choice?
New research finds what really shapes your life experience over the years.
Posted Jan 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Is it possible to become the person you hope to be as you age? The most positive version of yourself that embraces, yet transcends, the losses and declines that are part of life? Some recent research suggests that it is.
For example, a study from Oregon State found that how you envision the person you want to be as you become older is a good predictor of who you do become. That’s encouraging, though a bit mystifying, because there’s a missing piece: What, in fact, is it that could enable you to actually become that version of yourself? Actually, some answers are hiding in plain sight.
First, take a look at what we already know. How people perceive their lives at age 50 is a good predictor of their health decades later—including their cardiovascular system, their memory, hospitalizations, and even their mortality. And research has found that happier people are also healthier as they age. The question is, what accounts for those associations? And more importantly, what might enable you to consciously create a positive version of yourself over time?
To explore that, the researchers from Oregon State University looked at what fuels the self-perceptions that become associated with positive aging in people’s later years. They honed in on factors that are more than just your inherited biological tendencies—for example, how you consciously envision your future life to begin with, dimensions of your personality, your overall outlook on life, or your spirit.
Their findings were published in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development. In essence, the research found that If you believe you’re capable of becoming the person you want to be as you become older, that’s who you’re more likely to become.
Really? That sounds suspiciously like the rising popularity among Gen Z of “manifesting” something you want—like a nice apartment, or a great job. And that’s the current incarnation of "positive thinking," or creating something by “intent,” as the New York Times recently described.
But in fact, as Shelbie Turner, co-author of the study, explained, "How we think about who we're going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be." And other research concurs. For example, a study from Northwestern University has found that your personality can change and evolve over time. Dimensions of yourself, previously dormant, can emerge and expand. And, as described in Psychological Science, other studies have found that increasing psychological well-being and a positive outlook benefits your physical health.
Two takeaways from those studies: First, we are one integrated organism—mind, body, spirit. All “parts” of ourselves are interrelated; each affects and is affected by the other. Moreover, you can change, grow and evolve with conscious intent, independent of your life situation—including the experience of loss and decline. How do you do that?
Envision who you aspire to be.
The first step is creating a vision of the person you want to become, or become more of, over time. That’s unlike “manifesting,” which is deformed into wanting to get something to possess, that enhances your ego, your adulation of yourself. Rather, a vision to aspire towards embodies the person you want to be: your values, personality traits, and ways of relating to others that you want to display—yes, “manifest”—in your life.
With that picture in mind, you can strive to become more of the person you want to be with conscious efforts and actions. Here are some that, as I wrote at the beginning, are hidden in plain sight; they’re not secret knowledge.
Confront and heal your “demons.”
Open yourself to facing old traumas and fears, and awaken to the emotional defenses you’ve created around them. That may mean therapy, or serious meditation—some form of increasing self-awareness. Actually, getting older can help because old defenses and lies to oneself start to crumble when you’re farther along in life. They don’t work as well as they used to. That gives you a new opportunity to deal with them, heal, and work at growing beyond them in your daily life.
Serve something larger than “me.”
A love affair with your ego keeps you imprisoned, unable to become more of the person you hope to become. We all struggle with ego; it’s part of who we are as humans. But we can work at letting go of self-involvement by engaging and connecting with something larger than ourselves. As soon as you provide service or help in some way to another, or to a situation in need of help, you begin to forget about yourself. Your sense of well-being and balance grows from that.
Empirical studies, such as published in Psychological Bulletin, have found that when you make a conscious effort to do good, in some way—serve something outside of yourself—your mental and physical health improves. A simple illustration: An immediate antidote to feeling depressed is doing something for someone in need; giving of yourself in some way, even if for a moment.
Engage your situation with a creative mentality.
This means seeking pathways towards the vision of yourself that you aspire to by means of a fluid, open, experimental attitude and behavior. Possible paths might exist right in your current situation, but you have to “see” them. That is, seeing the same things differently frees you from rigid, fixed thinking. You might find a new solution to a problem, right in front of you. A creative mindset can be especially important in a post-pandemic world. As the After Times emerge, much will be changed in our society. We may be in a permanent state of disequilibrium; there will be no bouncing back to what was before. You’ll benefit from an adaptive, experimental attitude to help you thrive, and not stagnate.
Service your infrastructure.
Keep in mind that we’re one interconnected being. Getting good quality sleep, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables predict better mental health and well-being, as a University of Otago study and many others have found. For example, a comprehensive study published in Frontiers in Medicine documents the integrated benefits of diets high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and lower in animal products and highly processed foods; daily physical activity; and sufficient sleep, which helps reduce inflammation, immune dysfunction, and other factors associated with chronic disease.
So, if you aim to create the person you want to become, the life you desire, through all the change, disruption—and yes, the likely losses and decline you’ll encounter—embrace these conscious practices that support it. It’s a “whole person” project, after all... because that's what we are.
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