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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Dixie Shaw says
May is National Stroke Awareness month. Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in our country. Disability largely because people aren’t aware of the signs of stroke and the warning tool, FAST.
I had my third Stroke event last Saturday night and spent the night undergoing tests in the hospital.
My current post, “DO YOU KNOW THE SIGNS OF STROKE” richlyaged.com, is an effort to create awareness and shows by my own story what can happen when we are clueless about stroke signs and how awareness and speed can preserve brain cells. It worked for me this time.
If we all share the signs with at least five others we can save lives. We can continue to age positively and cherish each moment going forward.
As always, your blog site is the benchmark for excellence. Thank you.
Roxanne Jones says
Wonderful post, Kathy. I can’t imagine not having something to look forward to and feeling hopeful about what lies ahead. That doesn’t negate the value of being in the present moment (and sometimes the present moment is taken up with laying the groundwork for those future plans and wishes–like foregoing expensive “stuff” for less-costly experiences in order to save enough for retirement, or exercising and eating right to optimize one’s health in order to enjoy life when older). Love the way your posts make us think!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Roxanne! Yes I think those of us who are more “forward thinking” find this much easier to understand. And like you point out, it doesn’t mean you plan every minute of every experience…but I’ve always felt that exploring my options in advance and lining out the “biggies” gives me more freedom to be spontaneous in the moment. It seems a bit counter-intuitive but it works really well for me. I don’t always do what I plan but it does sort of set the tone of what I wish to experience–and that is always helpful–in the moment! And good for you. You sound like a perfect “rightsizer” too. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Terri Webster Schrandt says
How interesting the study shows changes in financial expectations. That certainly is true for we Boomers who could be better with our money. Well as you know, my hubby and I have no problems finding meaningful leisure and work, and plan to continue these well into our 60s. At 57, we both will unlikely see social security until 67 or 70, which is fine, unless something catastrophic happens. I recently took one of those online longevity quizzes (I have my students take) and it gave me the age of 97! That’s 40 more years! With these thoughts in mind, Hans and I have looked into our financial future and are taking steps to fix up our Hilo house rather than sell it. We’d rather have the unlimited income stream than possibly fritter away the $$ from the sale. And it gives us reasons to head the Hawaii in the near future and start arranging for construction.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! Yes! It sounds to me that you have LOTS to look forward to in the future. I think that even though most of us “guessed” that it was helpful to have something to look forward to, it is good to have some science backing it up. And 97! Wow! That’s like an entire new lifetime. I’d say maximizing your property in Hawaii while enjoying the “journey” makes perfect sense to me too. Let’s keep encouraging each other as we go, okay? ~Kathy
Lynne Spreen says
Kathy, this is another great post (and your banner photos are wonderful, too). I asked my husband, “What are you looking forward to?” I know he is anticipating certain developments in our lives, and thought I would know the answer, but asked as an experiment. Once again, he surprised me with his creativity. He said, “I’m looking forward to enjoying my present.” I thought, did someone get him a present? But no. He is more adept than anyone else I know in the art of being present, being mindful. He elaborated: he is excited about refining the enjoyment of his life even more, so he can enhance the enjoyment of the moment even more. He does that by protecting his time and energy, not hanging with negative people, curating a selection of new books to read (he’s a voracious reader), etc. I offer this because it’s a different take on planning.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lynne! Thank you for sharing your feedback from your husband because I think it helps clarify that it isn’t always a “to do” list or a hard and fast goal or dream. Another way to think about it is the question: Do you have something that makes you look forward to getting up in the morning. It sounds to me that is what your husband has. In the long run it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of someone’s plans for their future, it is only whether it offers anyone the juice they need to stay motivated and looking forward to the future. And while I’m not sure you could say anyone’s dream helps them live “longer” because stuff still happens…but what it does is help make remaining days on the planet more satisfying and positive. Thanks again for sharing that perspective. ~Kathy
Beth Havey says
Great post. I also always have something to look forward too. It it’s not an event outside of my home, then it’s working on my novel or reading a book or just being with my husband. Life is a choice. You can mess it up by not appreciating what you have.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Thank you. I so agree with you that we do all have the choice of appreciating what we have with the situation we find ourselves in at any time. Not easy if the “situation” is unpleasant but still essential. And so much of that is holding on to hope and curiosity don’t you think. If we have no point to our future it may signal that it is time to move on–and while most people don’t think that clearly about it–it sometimes seems more obvious to others. Unfortunately, my mom was an example of that. ~Kathy
I always like having something to look forward to – especially travel (although I sometimes get more and more anxious as the departure date gets closer 🙂 ). I love that you wrote “planning doesn’t always look like a to-do list.” I love my lists – and checking things off – but I don’t always have a lot of what I’d call big future goals. Maybe I just need to re-think my definitions.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! I agree that the “big” goals that seemed so important when I was young don’t seem to have the same juice to them these days. But that might be because we used to believe that those goals were a ticket to something–like getting rich or getting married or buying that big house or???–and that once we got them our lives would be perfect. I think at this age, I realize that those “things” don’t make a person happy…it’s the journey, not the destination right…so it makes sense to me that just having experiences we want to explore in the future feels different. Thanks for sharing your perspective. ~Kathy
Susan Mary Malone says
This study is really interesting, Kathy. And it’s just common sense too, no? To be engaged in life, to have goals and wishes–who says those need to stop as we age? I personally plan to still be chasing the writing of that Great American Novel til I die. And, breeding champion Labradors 🙂
In fact, I had dinner recently with a very active, very vibrant woman who had just judged the hunt test at the National Specialty. What a hoot she is! She’d just turned 86 at the time . . .
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Susan! Yes, I think a real key is staying curious and open to what comes next. I wrote a post about the idea of “nexting” and this is so very similar but with a focus on an aging population. Can you imagine NOT having something to look forward to? I can’t! ~Kathy
Still the Lucky Few says
The Huijg study is impressive, with a very large base, and encouraging outcomes. But I especially welcomed your comment that planning doesn’t necessarily have to look like a to-do list. Sometimes, in my experience, an idea just emerges out of your day to day activities, and becomes so compelling, that you are inspired to continue with it. I think that being open to this type of mental activity, and having the flexibility to make room for it, leads a person to activities that are fulfilling and satisfying.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! Yes, when I first read this study I thought it was an indication of new ways of looking at the aging issue. So many studies in the past were all about who was sick and frail….sort of like the change that happened in the positive psychology movement…until researchers started studying what made people happier and fulfilled in their lives, most of the studies focused on those in trouble. That’s not to deny the troubles, but again, that doesn’t provide encouragement for the rest of us so I’m really happy to see these studies happening now. ~Kathy
Very interesting Kathy! I would love to see a study done in this country where health care costs are high if that does not tip the scales in a more financial direction?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! I thought the same thing. Thanks for bringing that up because I’m sure it would skew some responses. But again, remember some of the previous research of people who ask those at the end of their life what they regret most and having more savings or even better health care wasn’t high on the list. Of course it is important, especially for those unfortunately caught with serious illness and few resources, but I still believe that the majority of people have other focus no matter where they live in the world. ~Kathy