- Most people think of aging as physical decline, frailty, infirmed states, and navigating a slow cognitive failure and death.
- There is so much we have to look forward to as we age.
- Emotional growth continues throughout life.
What is the first thing you think of when someone says "old age"? Most people think of aging as physical decline, frailty, infirmed states, and navigating a slow cognitive failure and death.
How do I know this? As an aging specialist, this thinking causes people to run away from me at cocktail parties. When I introduce myself as an aging specialist, I see their eyes dart around the room, looking for anyone who can help them make the great escape from the most boring person in the world.
At a dinner party about twenty years ago, someone finally decided to chat me up about aging. He asked, "Why do you study aging?" My answer was just what he expected "to find prevention and cures for depression, to understand better how we can reduce frailty, and find new ways to offer end of life care." He looked back at me, horrified, and said, "So we have nothing to look forward to?" I was stumped. I didn't have an answer, and I was really embarrassed at the time because I felt pretty good about my work and what I was giving back to the world. I didn't have anything to say to him about what we have to look forward to. So, he continued, "You know, I can't imagine why anyone bothers to study aging if we have literally nothing to look forward to." It was like a slap in the face.
It was also my AHA! moment.
What neither of us realized at the time was that there is so much to look forward to as we age. We'd been relying on the misconceptions of aging—that life is a steady decline after our 20s and 30s. So I went ahead and took a deep dive into developmental psychology to really look at what we have to look forward to, and I was so excited by the findings.
Erik Erikson's theory of development held the first key. His theory talks about stages beyond puberty, where most development theorists stop, and it includes emotional development, which most developmental theorists also neglect. His theory is that from birth through death, we never stop developing. So while we are all focused on our physical increase and then physical decline, we are blind to the continued emotional increases we experience throughout life.
Our emotional growth makes us happier as we age (NPR Staff, 2015) and inspires us to leave a legacy, look beyond ourselves, and see ourselves as part of our communities and the world (McAdams, 2004). Think of this as two stock portfolio options. One has a steady increase, then a sharp decline.
The other has a slow, steady increase but never declines.
No one would willingly choose the first option if it were presented as a stock option. However, this is the option we all adhere to when thinking about aging: It is all physical. Needless to say, learning about the emotional development "option" inspired me to change how I viewed aging and led me on a mission to look at aging as something we can all look forward to.
I then pivoted to look at what we have to look forward to as we age. I started to look at generativity (the desire to give back to others without expecting anything in return). This happens in midlife, and it leads to happiness for us as we really engage in the emotional journey that connects us with others.
Whether we connect with an individual, our community, or the greater world, we can realize we have skills, values, talents, and expertise that matter to others. Our lives take on a deeper meaning, and the joy we experience is far greater than the material joy we feel when we buy a new handbag or shoes.
This is a lasting joy that allows us to realize that we matter, that our footprint on the world makes a difference, and that the world is a better place because of our impact. We aren't going through life checking off boxes or spending time with people who don't really matter to us. Instead, we are fully engaged in what we enjoy and with whom we enjoy life.
And, most important, everyone can experience this. This developmental stage is not reserved for professionals, for the "elite." From a grandma to a four-star general, anyone can expect to experience this increased emotional awareness with age that has the side effect of happiness.
So what are you waiting for? Toss aside the misconceptions of aging and enjoy life!
McAdams, D. P., & Logan, R. L. (2004). What is generativity? In E. de St. Aubin, D. P. McAdams, & T.-C. Kim (Eds.), The generative society: Caring for future generations (p. 15–31). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10622-002
Staff, N. P. R. T. E. D. (2015, June 19). Why Should We Look Forward To Getting Older? NPR. https://www.npr.org/2015/06/19/414999589/why-should-we-look-forward-to-….