Just about every day I read a post on Facebook or one of the many blogs I follow about getting older. And while many of them poke fun at the experience, most of the time the posts subtly (or not so subtly!) talk about the drawbacks to aging. But, when you think about it, every single day each of us is getting older—and thankfully so! Consider the alternative. So instead of thinking of life as a gradual decline, maybe it is time to start thinking of how life gets better as we go along—and that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. And even though I’m not facing a birthday for several months, I decided a good way to prepare was to start focusing on the benefits long before the day arrives.
Here are ten great benefits we gain as we age:
1) Less negativity—higher self esteem. Researcher Ulrich Orth from the University of Basel studied thousands of 18 to 89 year olds and discovered that regardless of demographic and social status, the older we get the more negativity diminishes and the higher our self-esteem climbs. He says, “With time, we hone qualities like self-control and altruism that contribute to overall happiness. The best is yet to come!” A large Gallup Poll done in 2008 confirmed that adults near 85 years old are even more satisfied with themselves and their life than they were at 18.
2) More positive wellbeing—greater emotional stability. Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University recently published a study where she showed that as time passed over a 15 year period her study subjects reported more positive well-being and greater emotional stability as they aged—no matter what their age when they started the study. Carstensen’s studies show that negative emotions like sadness, anger and fear become less pronounced as we age as opposed to the roller-coaster drama-filled younger years. Even further, the Gallup Poll done in 2008 reported that stress and worry gradually decline from teenage years and reach a low point when a person turns 85 years old.
3) Brain plasticity. It was once believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells that slowly died off as we age. Science now knows that our brains continue to grow neurons as we age and can reshape itself in response to what it learns. Even learning to juggle, learn a new language or play an instrument can cause significant brain changes in hearing, memory and hand movements. Plus, studies confirm that our vocabulary not only continues to grow as we do, it become richer and provides more subtle ways of expressing ourselves. As long as we use it, we won’t lose it!
4) Sync’d hemispheres. Brain scans show that while young people often use only one side of their brain for a specific task, middle age and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at the same time—a pattern known as bilateralization. This process allows more mature people to use the full power of their brain when faced with problems or situations. Specifically, our reasoning and problem-solving skills tend to get sharper.
5) Clearer priorities. Studies done by Michael Marsiske Ph.D. suggest that older adults tend to perceive time in a way that makes them “increasingly aware that our years on this Earth are limited.” He goes on to say that, “This awareness helps explain the choices that older adults tend to make: to spend time with a smaller, tighter circle of friends and family, to pay more attention to good news than to bad news, and to seek out positive encounters and avoid negative ones.” In other words, aging helps us let go of the trivial and focus on what is most important.
6) Wiser perspective. A study done at the University of Michigan presented “Dear Abby” letters to 200 people and asked them what advice they would give. Those over 60, as opposed to younger participants, offered a wider variety of options showing different points of view, multiple resolutions and suggested compromise. One theory is that as we age we develop a multitude of brain maps that help us to recognize and respond to similar circumstances when we come upon them again. By midlife and beyond we have a stockpile of these maps, which offer us a sense of effortless mastery from our wealth of experiences.
7) Better Able To See Big Picture. Allison Sekuler, PhD did a study in 2005 where younger and older subjects were shown moving objects on a computer screen of varying shapes and shades. While younger people were able to point them out more quickly when they were small and gray, older subjects had the advantage when they were large and highly contrast. Sekuler noted that young brains seemed better able at focusing on details to the exclusion of their surroundings while more mature brains can take in the entire scene. Need some big picture thinking—ask a senior!
8) See the good—ignore the bad. As we age our brains gradually begin reacting less to negative input and are pulled more toward the positive. Laura Carstensen director of the Stanford Center on Longevity did a study in 2004 where younger and older volunteers were asked to observe happy, distressed and neutral photographs. The brains of younger subjects (18-29) were activated equally by happy or distressed images. Meanwhile, the brains of the older subjects (70-90) reacted much more strongly to the positive photos. Then later when asked to recall some of the photos, the older group conveniently were unable to remember having seen the distressing photos as opposed to the younger group.
9) Higher Work Satisfaction. A recent study by the Associated Press & NORC Center For Public Affairs found that 92% of workers aged 50 or older say they are very or somewhat satisfied with their job. While only 80% of those under 30 report the same thing. Only 38% of young adults say they are deeply satisfied with their work, while 63% of those age 65 and older admit to such deep satisfaction. It is believed that by the time we age to a certain level we have found the type of work that we feel is fulfilling and satisfying.
10) Self-Appreciation And Acceptance. While this benefit is not a given for everyone who ages, those who age successfully and with contentment embrace the need for self-love. After a certain age the futility of trying to being someone else or to make others happy to our detriment become pointless, and the freedom and courage to be oneself becomes paramount. Often this means recognizing that our true value and worth has little to do with how we look or what we do in the world, and everything to do with who we really are on a soul level.
Sure there are some downsides to the aging process, but I’m convinced it is time to start focusing on the upside instead. Face it, when we point out the negatives without the benefits, we tell ourselves and those younger than us that the best part of life is over. And frankly, my experiences so far don’t even come close to that being true. As I close in on turning 59 this year, my life is at a wonderful place physically, mentally and emotionally. And even if I must gradually give in some on the physical side, the benefits on the mental and emotional side of the equation more than offset the trade. After all, the only way our culture will ever turn the tide to recognizing, honoring and valuing the experience of age is if we fearlessly face it ourselves. I think it’s SMART to be ready—what about you?