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10 Reasons I’m Happy to Be Turning 70

The psychology of one person’s (reasonably) successful aging.

This weekend I turned 70. If you had asked me when I was 17, I’d have guessed there was not much point in even living to be that old. In fact, for most of my youth, I had doubts that I’d live past 50, but no anticipated regrets about not making it that far, because who really wants to be old?

Scottsdale bike path, photo by Douglas T. Kenrick, used with permission
Source: Scottsdale bike path, photo by Douglas T. Kenrick, used with permission

Well, turns out its not that bad. Here are a few things I did in the last week, transitioning from my formerly youthful 60s to being a septuagenarian:

  1. I took a 30-mile bike ride on my 70th birthday. I almost changed my mind because the predicted high temperature was 109, but I decided to tough it out, just to prove I'm still in the game. I got up at 5 a.m. (when it was still a cool 75), and by the time I finished it had barely topped 90. I also stopped to douse myself with water several times, and was wearing a big floppy sun-protective hat under my bike helmet. I'm sure that with my sopping wet shirt and that goofy headgear I looked like an aging madman. But it was beautiful to be biking around Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix at that time of day. I saw very few cars, because there are miles and miles of great bike paths around here, complete with underpasses that let you skip riding on or across big streets (the attached photo shows one pleasant spot in the Scottsdale river park). That was probably one of the half dozen longest bike rides in my life (and the other 5 were when I was a mere 24-year-old). They say regular exercise helps you live longer, so when I was 50, I ran for 10 miles. At 60, it was a 10 mile jog, and at 65, it was a 5 mile hike in the mountains with my son Dave. At 80, I hope to be able to walk around the block.
  2. I took a 6 mile hike through the lovely mountains outside of Prescott on Friday, and hiked another 4 miles up Granite Peak on Saturday. Besides the exercise, there’s the whole uplifting being in nature thing. I earlier reviewed here some research on the psychological benefits of being in nature, and I heard recently that the Japanese have a concept called “forest bathing.” There’s apparently empirical evidence that being around trees and running water is good for your physical and mental health (e.g., Nisbet, & Zelenski, 2011, which I reviewed here). And if you go to a high enough elevation in the mountains, there are plenty of shady trees, and even the occasional trickling creek, in Arizona.
  3. I worked on the 7th edition of my social psychology textbook with my son Dave, who is now a coauthor, and who has made a bunch of cool new animated videos of social psychologists doing 4 minute summaries of their favorite studies. (Here’s a link to one in which University of Michigan’s Josh Ackerman talks about his research on men’s and women’s different reactions to hearing the words “I love you” before or after they have started having sex.)
  4. Dave and I completed a proposal for a new popular press book and sent it off to my agent. It was an immense amount of fun, meshing Dave’s background in film with our shared interest in evolutionary psychology. Working with my son has enhanced my sense of meaning in life on about three levels, and as my colleagues and I have argued in several places, seeing your offspring thrive is true self-actualization, from a Darwinian and a Maslovian perspective. It had been a life goal to write a popular press book, and although it took me till nearly age 60 to get started, I've now published a couple of them, and I loved the way they turned out. The first, published in 2010, was Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life. The second, in 2013, was The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think, with my former student Vlad Griskevicius. Stay tuned!
  5. I finished edits on an article to appear in Scientific American magazine, titled “The Science of Antiscientific Thinking” (Kenrick, Cohen, Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2018). Having an article in Scientific American was another long term life goal, but it also took me all this time to get around to it, so another reason to be happy I didn’t die of cardiac arrest when I made my 10 mile run back when I turned 50.
  6. I was myself a coauthor on a new paper that just appeared in Psych Review, using ideas from behavioral ecological studies of animals to understand cultural variations across human societies (Sng, Neuberg, Varnum, & Kenrick, 2018). Major credit going to the first author, Oliver Sng, but one of life’s biggest lessons is: surround yourself with great team members.
  7. I have eaten some fabulous, and healthy, food. I’ve eaten twice at a phenomenal Thai restaurant in Prescott called Tara Thai, the kind of place that you’d expect to find in San Francisco or New York, but there it is sitting on the central square of what used to be the capital of the Arizona Territory. One of my meals there was with my 14 year old son, Liam, and my wife; the other was with my colleague Peter Killeen, who is one of the brightest and most thoughtful people I have ever met (and who, besides living a fun and rich life, has published about 6 papers in Psych Review – a big deal if you don’t happen to be in the psychology business, most people would be proud to publish there once in their career) (e.g., Killeen & Fetterman, 1988). He's also published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, another very very big deal (Killeen, 1994), and in Science! With Peter, I ate a mango fish in red curry sauce which was one of the best meals I ever ate in my life, and I skipped the rice, so it was even healthy. And being kind as well as wise, he picked up the tab, thanks, Peter!
  8. I found out that my 14-year-old son Liam finished up the 8th grade with a straight A average. Better yet, 5 of those As were A+s. He’s also becoming an increasingly amusing person to be around, and he jokingly apologized for his poor performance in the other two courses. Don’t tell him I mentioned it here, though, he didn’t even brag to his big brother Dave. Unlike his old man, he apparently doesn’t like to show off.
  9. I took my two grandkids and both aforementioned sons to a local bookstore to buy presents for them on my birthday. I have learned from research by Liz Dunn and her colleagues Lara Aknin and Michael Norton (2008) - that giving to others makes you happier than giving to yourself (although I also found a couple of good used books that had either won or been nominated for a Pulitzer Prizes, and it didn’t make me any less happy to pick them up as well).
  10. My current life is a pleasant contrast from what you might have predicted 55 years ago. My two closest male relatives had served time in Sing Sing, and I had already been expelled from 2 high schools (for being a complete slacker in a Jesuit school for honors students, and then too much of a class clown in my next school, run by the tougher Irish Christian Brothers). I finished in public high school as a poor C student, but went to the local community college because I did have a knack with aptitude tests. But then they put me on probation after scoring a dismal 1.66 cumulative average. And in my attempts to be cool, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and drinking late into the night. I thank my first wife, Dave's mom, Elaine Lundberg, for inspiring me to quit the smoking, and to slow down my alcohol consumption to avoid my mother's fate of becoming an alcoholic. And I'm grateful Elaine still talks to me, because my path to a reasonably settled adult was hardly a linear one. I talk about how my experiences down in the gutter helped me appreciate looking up at the stars, and guided a lot of my most interesting research, in my book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life.

I was going to wing into a lecture for all you young whippersnappers from my now elderly sagacious self about the general principles of exercise, good friendships, fulfilling work, goals to keep you motivated, family connections, and all that. But I discovered that maybe I’m not old enough. Last night my wife and I went to this great 5 course seafood dinner with accompanying “wine pairings” (apparently a little vino doesn't hurt your longevity, after all). The guy sitting next to me started chatting with us, and it turned out he was 92, and still in great shape (he also took the wine pairings)! So, I’ll get back to you in 20 years, when I’m a little more mature.

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How to spend your way to happiness: The best things in life are …

Do you underestimate the joys of nature? Go for a hike!

References

Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687–1688.

Kenrick, D.T. (2010). Sex, murder, and the meaning of life. New York: Basic Books.

Kenrick, D.T. (2013). The rational animal: how evolution made us smarter than we think. New York: Basic Books.

Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314.

Kenrick, D.T., Cohen, A.B., Cialdini, R.B., & Neuberg, S.L. (2018). The science of antiscientific thinking. Scientific American. In press.

Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.E.L. (in press). Social psychology: Goals in interaction. 7th edition. Boston: Pearson.

Killeen, P. R. (1994). Mathematical principles of reinforcement. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17(1), 105-135.

Killeen, P. R., & Fetterman, J. G. (1988). A behavioral theory of timing. Psychological review, 95(2), 274-295.

Krems, J. A., Kenrick, D. T., & Neel, R. (2017). Individual Perceptions of Self-Actualization: What Functional Motives Are Linked to Fulfilling One’s Full Potential?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(9), 1337-1352.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-390

Nisbet, E. K., & Zelenski, J. M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychological science, 22(9), 1101-1106.

Sng, O., Neuberg, S.L., Varnum, M. E.W., & Kenrick, D.T. (2018). The behavioral ecology of cultural psychological variation. Psychological Review. Released online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rev0000104.

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