- Many people fear getting older.
- There are some real difficulties inherent in aging, but research shows that many older people are happier than many younger ones.
- A fairly simple technique can help you reframe your thinking and stop worrying about getting older.
Tashaun* is in his late thirties. “I’ve got a big birthday coming up,” he said. “I’m trying to tell myself that nothing is really changing, I’m not changing, but I don’t know. You hear so much about what happens to your body and your mind after forty. It’s like things go downhill from there. I’ve got so much I need to do before that happens.”
Kim* is thirty-one. “I was so worried about turning thirty,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of, but it seemed like it was the worst thing that could happen to me. I felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough, wasn’t healthy enough, hadn’t been exercising enough or eating the right way. I think I sort of expected my body to fall apart. It didn’t, but now I’m worried about turning thirty-five.”
As she approached her seventieth birthday, Amber* said that her sixties were the best years of her life. “I settled into myself,” she said. “No, more than that—I became myself. There were ups and downs, of course, but I’ve been consistently happier than I’ve ever been before. But nothing lasts forever, and I’m so afraid that that will disappear in the next decade.”
Big birthdays—those years when we move into a new decade or into the second half of the decade we’re in already—frequently stir up fears of aging. But worries about getting old form an undercurrent in the lives of many of us, no matter what our age. And no wonder. Negative attitudes about age and aging are part of many cultures these days.
We don’t want to get old for many reasons. Some of our concerns, like fear of loss—of independence, of loved ones, of our physical and mental abilities, and of course, of life itself—have some basis in reality.
But many of our fears have very little to do with what is really involved in getting older. The fears are based on cultural stereotypes, or prejudices, that are often accepted by our friends, colleagues, and family and are reinforced by many different aspects of the world around us. Becca R. Levy, Ph.D., Yale professor and author of a best-selling book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You Live, said in an interview that these prejudices are the result of a combination of internal fears and social stigma.
Levy commented that both sorts of concerns are reinforced by “companies, such as in advertising, in social media and also in the anti-aging industry, which generate a trillion dollars together of profits in part by denigrating aging and creating a fear around aging.”
But there are some things you can do to counteract this culturally-based fear of getting older. One of the most important is to alter your mindset about aging, according to studies done by researchers at the Yale Center for Research on Aging. Studies conducted by these researchers, including Dr. Levy, showed that elderly participants who experienced positive messages about aging showed an improvement in both physical functions and their self-images. Those in the control group, who did not receive information that reinforced positive images of aging and reduced negative stereotypes did not show improvement.
But how can you do that yourself, when you are constantly bombarded with messages about time running out and the daily ticking of your biological clock, loss of brain cells, and diminishing of physical capacities?
It seems that the answer to the question is fairly simple: You have to change your mindset about getting older by actively looking for information that disproves those negative messages about aging.
Yes, it’s true that there are genuine difficulties, pain, and loss that come along with aging. But, much as we wish it wasn’t true, there are plenty of those moments throughout our lives. Parents, children, friends, and other loved ones don’t always wait till we’re old to become ill or die. Relationships fail all through life. Disappointment in jobs, living situations, other people, and in ourselves occur at every life stage.
Fears about aging can include fears about being hurt, anxiety about being ill, and worries about dying. But research has also shown that many older folks tend to be happier than younger ones. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, commented that “people’s goals and reasoning change as they come to appreciate their mortality and recognize that their time on Earth is finite. When people face endings they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” she said.
I asked Amber what had made her sixties so special. “I started to focus more on what was important to me,” she said. “I worked at improving my relationships with my children and grandchildren. I got involved in some projects that might have a tiny impact on the health of the earth, and that also gave me tremendous satisfaction on a daily basis.” In her book A Long Bright Future, Carstensen tells us that it is crucial to integrate the very real difficulties of aging with a time that is “socially rewarding, productive, and fun.” Paying attention to those positive experiences will not make the negative ones go away, but will shift the focus of your brain so that you will have greater pleasure—be happier and more content—as you age.
Amber realized that she could continue to focus on those emotionally meaningful goals in her seventies. “I can do that no matter how old I get,” she said. “Things might get difficult, but if my attention is on my relationships and what’s important to me, I won’t worry about the difficulties so much.”
But you can use these techniques no matter what your age. Rather than worrying about getting older, about all of the things that you will be losing, try resetting your thoughts. Turn your attention to what is emotionally meaningful to you now. Let yourself enjoy those activities and relationships that give you pleasure or make you happy or content. The bad things in your life won’t go away, but they may take up less space in your brain.
You might just find that changing your mindset about aging can make you happier while you’re young.
*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy
A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity
by Laura Carstensen | Sep 27, 2011
Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live
by Becca Levy | Apr 12, 2022