Like most people my age I am increasingly interested in what leads to aging well and happy. I am also keenly aware of how different that is from many of the conversations my parents had in later years. Rather than go through a depressing list of “organ – recitals” that often characterized our parents and their friends, the new emerging conversation about positive aging is leading in exciting and interesting directions every day. One recent study from the Netherlands combines the idea of healthy aging to people’s hopes, plans, and wishes for their future. Could it be that having goals and planning for certain experiences can make us happier and more satisfied as we age? This particular study says yes.
In the past, most studies about aging were conducted from an objective approach to the topic. That perspective on aging usually put a person’s physical functioning and health status above all else. Former studies also put heavy emphasis on financial security, physical appearance and sense of purpose. So even though the world we live in is dramatically different in 2017, previous studies mostly offered information on the physical and material nature of aging.
Fortunately, groups of researchers are now approaching the subject in new and more personal perspectives. These new studies ask participants what is important to them and what their experiences are as they age. These innovative, more multidimensional approaches incorporate a person’s physical functioning, quality of health, well-being, life satisfaction, engagement, social life, and the ability to adapt into the results. For those of us most interested, a new understanding of what leads to positive aging is unfolding.
Using Research To Show The Benefits Of Planning For The Future
One such study was led by Dr. Johanna M. Huijg from the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing in the Netherlands. She and her colleagues decided to take on something that many people already suspect—that it is beneficial to always have something to look forward to as we age. In 2016 Huijg and her team started by asking a group of older individuals about their future plans and wishes, as well what they would like to achieve in life. By taking this approach they resolved a quandary found in previous research. That problem was that when older individuals were asked, approximately 50% felt they were “aging successfully.” Yet, based upon the former objective measures of successful aging, only 10 to 18% qualified. Clearly how many researchers saw aging, and how people felt about their own aging process, looked differently.
This new study about plans and wishes asked 649 individuals from age 55 to 90 a variety of questions about their future. At the core of the study were questions about individual desires and hopes in their coming years. Beyond that they asked people to rate the quality of their health, whether they were working or not, and whether they did volunteer work.
Researchers also paid particular attention to whether participants had poor social contacts or were completely happy with the number and closeness of their relationships. In addition, each person was asked to rate their life satisfaction and their optimism about the future. Study authors then tied these elements together to reveal interesting information about whether or not planning offered people a good way to age in a positive way.
What Did They Discover About Positive Aging?
The most interesting results of this study revealed that people who admitted to having plans and goals in at least two areas of their life experienced higher life satisfaction than all the rest. In other words, it is important for people to have something to reach for in the future. Those participants who reported no goals or plans, or those who had very low wishes for the future, rated much lower on the life-satisfaction scale. It also showed that while health was an important goal, it wasn’t the primary goal as previous research had made it out to be.
Of all the plans and wishes that people had, the majority emphasized activities. Over 50% of those listed involved plans to stay active in life, pursue hobbies, and to engage in ongoing learning and intellectual activities. But, no surprise here, the number one wished for activity was to travel. In fact, nearly 38% said they wanted to see the world.
Following activities of all sorts was the desire to stay engaged with life. This meant that participants wanted to continue with productive activities, work, and interpersonal relationships. Next, people wanted to stay healthy, overcome an illness, or reach a certain age. Overall, the majority of people had a combination of goals and plans for the future with the top three being: activities, engagement in life, and good health.
After that came the desire to be happy and enjoy life. Next was a goal to stay mobile, live independently, and have financial security. Lastly came the desire for the health and wellbeing of others and world peace. Again, these results show how much of previous research misses the mark when it comes to what is most important to people. Although marketing concerns tend to focus on an obsession with making sure that we all have enough in savings and that we plan for retirement, this study suggests that those thoughts don’t consume our dreams and goals as much as they would like.
The study went further by making correlations between certain categories of information. The study reports: “There was a significant relationship between lower education and not having PWs (plans and wishes) as well as for a considerable lack of social contacts and not having PWs.” In other words, those with low education and few friends often had little or no goals or plans for what lies ahead.
In addition, while health did take a role in some people goals and plans for the future, it was usually in a secondary position. That is likely because health helps in the pursuit of all other plans and goals no matter what people are hoping to experience. It also confirmed the importance of a person’s ability to adapt and change as they age. Having a willingness to be flexible and to continue to set and reach goals appropriate to one’s life situation lies at the center of a person’s desire to keep planning and setting goals no matter what.
For those of us who like to plan, and especially plan to age well and happy, this research is encouraging. But keep in mind, how we plan and wish for the future looks different to many of us. I recently spoke to a friend who said she wasn’t a good planner. Yet I’ve witnessed her execute a plan to create a beautiful piece of artwork that staggered my mind. So planning doesn’t always look like a to-do list. Sometimes planning is just holding a strong desire to see or create something new in our future—be it artwork, a book, learning a language or traveling the world.
I am reminded of a memory of my mother years ago when I asked her why she didn’t quit smoking after experiencing several health problems. As encouragement, I asked her, “Don’t you want to live to be 80 or 90?” She answered in all seriousness, “Why would I want to do that?” Maybe that’s why I find this new research so exciting. Sure it confirms that good health and strong social connections are important. But perhaps more essential is the continuous ability to hold dreams in mind and make plans for the future. It appears that maintaining a positive attitude about the future, and expecting that our good will continue to unfold in ways that we plan for, just might be the SMART thing to do for those of us who want to age in a successful and positive way.
For Complete Study Details: Being Active, Engaged, and Healthy: Older Persons’ Plans And Wishes To Age Successfully
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