Thinking is contagious. In other words, what we focus on and spend time mulling over in our minds routinely shows up over and over in wanted or unwanted ways. Worried about something? Chances are you will wake up in the middle of the night with those fears running through your head like a wild horse. Intrigued by something? Curious? Delighted? Without a doubt, you will find trails of those ideas leading in all sorts of interesting directions.
That’s why it was no surprise when I stumbled upon a newsletter called Positive Aging by The Taos Institute while surfing the Internet. There I found a newly released book entitled, Paths To Positive Aging—Dog Days with a Bone and Other Essays and I emailed and asked for a review copy. As hoped, this small book of essays generated all sorts of new ideas about aging that I found remarkable. And so it goes.
First, the title—what on Earth does dog days with a bone have to do with positive aging—or any age for that matter? While I won’t go into details, the message is a clear reminder that even in the dog days of summer, as long as you can find a tasty bone to chew, you can easily ignore the heat. Ask my dog Kloe. When gnawing on one of her favorite chews, Kloe is oblivious to just about everything else. So no matter how disadvantaged we find ourselves, discovering the benefits that often lay beneath the surface can reward us in numerous ways.
This book, written and compiled by Mary Gergen and Kenneth J. Gergen, addresses a growing message in the world today—ageism exists. Without even being aware of it, the idea of aging as a period of decline and disease has taken the lead in nearly all past investigations. Fortunately, with the help of the Gergens and many others, that messaging is changing. A few of the new messages found in the book includes ideas on:
- The Liberation Phase—aging offers us all a “liberation” period in our lives when we are no longer bound by the need for productivity. This new freedom severs our need to be a victim of our past and asks us to take action on what comes next. After all, if not now, when?
- Seeing The Third Age of life as our Creative Age—as we move into advanced age we no longer feel the need to “earn our worth.” It is then that we are free to creatively design our life and experiences. Enhancing the idea that children create for the sheer fun of it, we give ourselves permission to play and enjoy our creativity in all that we do.
- Doing what is proper for our age—(or any age) is a societal expectation that limits our possibilities. If you want to wear purple—wear it! If you want to go backpacking in Europe—go! If want to attend Burning Man—buy your ticket! Don’t let expectations of what is proper for your age hold you back from anything you want to do.
- Most research on aging is biased toward the disease and decline model—for example: measuring the fact that it might take you two seconds longer to notice something at 80 as opposed to 40 is trivial. Over-generalizing research findings that compare anyone from 60 to 80 with people from 20 to 40 distort variables. And if the observer affects the observed as is proven in quantum physics, then the expectation of the researcher taints the results. Only recently have a handful of researchers begun to explore the advantages, the increases, and the enrichments that come as we age.
- Those who resist negative labels to aging offer a new variety of hero: the category buster—unfortunately, psychology routinely uses diagnostic categories to slot people into certain areas of pathology. The medical field does it with disease. Once a person accepts such a label, they often begin to shape their entire lives around it. According to the Gergens, “In a sense, they imprisoned themselves.” Instead when we become “category busters” we refuse to be constrained by any label and stay open to what may be possible.
- According to Lifespan studies, every phase of life offers changes—the challenge in older age is to embrace integrity over despair—rather than resist the process, or live with regret and disappointment, we each have the capacity to embrace this age (and every phase of life). By learning and adapting new skills, enhancing our creativity and practicing new ways of living we access tremendous potential.
- Zest for life has a profound influence on both the prognosis of illness as well as the risk of dying—of the many studies cited in this book, this simple look at how life satisfaction impacts our health is dramatic. After following 80 year-olds-and-over for ten years, research reports that those with the highest level of life satisfaction (zest and mood) lived nearly twice as long as those with lower satisfaction. That’s right—twice as long!
This book introduced me to many new authors and studies. But behind them all was the ongoing message that “If aging is to be a positive period of growth, new and important skills are required.” What kind of skills? The Gergens explain it by saying “It is useful to make a rough distinction between two general kinds of skills, those that expand the potentials of living and those that enable us to live with loss.”
Loss. That’s an idea that makes many of us go and turn on the television, grab a cocktail or start scrolling on Facebook. Even those of us who actively pursue the idea of expanding our potential for living, often pause when faced with losing anything.
But what is loss really but a new way of letting go of what no longer serves us? By reframing the idea of losing out on something, and instead to redefine and replace it with something new, the sting of loss becomes more manageable. This is similar to my ongoing focus on rightsizing rather than the more common term of downsizing. Rightsizing implies a going toward something new rather than away from something old. Could it be that redefining aging, like redefining loss, is a path to renewal?
Ultimately, the Gergens communicate that a key to positive aging is seeing the process as an acquired skill. Standing behind that ever-deepening skill is an awareness of how meaning and relationships are essential aspects of its development. That’s why the SMART approach, as always, is to stay open and optimistic about what comes next, and to never forget to add zest!
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