Tashaun* is in his late thirties. “I have a big birthday ahead of me,” he said. “I try to tell myself that nothing really changes, I don’t change, but I don’t know. You hear so much about what happens to your body and mind after forty. It’s like it’s all downhill from there. I still have so much to do before that happens.”
Kim* is thirty-one. “I was so scared of turning thirty,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what I was afraid of, but it seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me. I felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough, wasn’t healthy enough, didn’t exercise enough, or didn’t eat enough. I think I expected my body to fall apart. It wasn’t, but now I’m worried I’ll be thirty-five.”
As she approached her seventieth birthday, Amber* said her sixties were the best years of her life. “I settled into myself,” she said. “No, more than that — I became myself. Of course there were ups and downs, but I was consistently happier than ever. But nothing lasts forever, and I’m so scared that’s going to go away in the next decade.”
Big birthdays – those years when we enter a new decade or the second half of the decade we are already in – often fuel fears of old age. But the worry of getting old forms an undercurrent in the lives of many of us, no matter how old we are. And no wonder. Negative attitudes towards aging and aging are part of many cultures today.
Source: 123RF archive image 47103990 Photographer studiograndouest
We don’t want to grow old for many reasons. Some of our worries, such as the fear of losing—independence, loved ones, our physical and mental abilities, and of course life itself—have some basis in reality.
But many of our fears have very little to do with what aging is really all about. The fears are based on cultural stereotypes or prejudices that are often accepted by our friends, colleagues and family members and are reinforced by many different aspects of the world around us. Becca R. Levy, Ph.D., Yale professor and bestselling author Breaking the Age Code: How your age beliefs determine how long and well you livesaid in an interview that these prejudices are the result of a combination of inner fears and social stigma.
Levy commented that both sets of concerns are compounded by “companies, like in advertising, social media, and even the anti-aging industry, collectively generating a trillion dollars in profits, in part by denigrating aging and fear stoke before aging. ”
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But there are some things you can do to counteract this cultural fear of aging. According to studies by researchers at the Yale Center for Research on Aging, one of the most important is changing the way you think about aging. Studies conducted by these researchers, including Dr. Levy, showed that older participants who experienced positive messages about aging showed improvement in both physical functioning and their self-image. Those in the control group who did not receive information that reinforced positive images of aging and reduced negative stereotypes showed no improvement.
But how can you do that yourself when you’re constantly being bombarded with messages about the passage of time and the daily ticking of the biological clock, the loss of brain cells, and declining physical capacity?
It seems that the answer to this question is pretty simple: you need to change the way you think about aging by actively seeking information that refutes these negative messages about aging.
Yes, it is true that there are real difficulties, pains and losses that come with aging. But as much as we wish it weren’t true, there are many of these moments in our lives. Parents, children, friends, and other loved ones don’t always wait until we’re old to get sick or die. Relationships fail throughout life. Disappointments at work, in life, with other people and with ourselves occur in every phase of life.
Fears of old age can include fears of injury, fears of being ill, and worries about dying. But research has also shown that many older people are happier than younger people. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, commented, “People’s goals and arguments change as they assess their mortality and realize that their time on earth is finite. When people face the end, they tend to move from goals that involve exploring and broadening horizons to goals that involve enjoying relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” she said.
I asked Amber what made her sixties so special. “I’ve started to focus more on what’s important to me,” she says. “I worked to improve my relationships with my children and grandchildren. I have been involved in a few projects that could have a tiny impact on the health of the earth and that has also given me great satisfaction on a daily basis.” In her book A long bright future, Carstensen tells us that integrating the very real difficulties of aging into a time that is “socially rewarding, productive and fun” is crucial. If you pay attention to these positive experiences, the negative ones won’t go away, but you will shift your brain’s focus so that as you get older, you find yourself enjoying more – being happier and more content.
Amber realized that even in her seventies, she could continue to focus on those emotionally meaningful goals. “I can do that no matter how old I get,” she says. “Things could get difficult, but when my attention is on my relationships and what’s important to me, I don’t worry as much about the difficulties.”
But you can use these techniques regardless of your age. Instead of worrying about getting older, about all the things you’re going to lose, try to reset your mind. Focus your attention now on what is emotionally meaningful to you. Enjoy the activities and relationships that bring you joy or make you happy or content. The bad things in your life won’t go away, but they can take up less space in your brain.
You may find that changing the way you think about aging will make you happier at a young age.
*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy