Is growing old just a state of mind? Can you fend off the routine infirmities of old age simply by refusing to believe you’re getting older? These are some of the questions Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer has been exploring during the past 30 years, an investigation profiled last week in the New York Times magazine.
Langer was in the forefront of the positive psychology movement back in the early 1980s, exploring the many ways in which the mind could affect the body. As Bruce Grierson reports in the Times, Langer’s views first drew attention in 1981, when she invited eight men in their 70s to a monastery in New Hampshire to spend five days getting 20 years younger.
The septuagenarians weren’t there to reminisce about the old days. They actually returned to 1959 — complete with black-and-white TV shows, radio pop songs, books, current affairs, and movies — all designed to persuade them to think of themselves as they were then. The results were noteworthy:
At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.
I’m no Harvard professor, but I’ve been convinced for some time that, when it comes to aging, you really create your own reality. If you believe that you’re going to be creaky, confused, and irrelevant when you hit your 60s, you probably will. But if you continue to challenge yourself physically and mentally — and not succumb to society’s perception of a geezer, you’re going to stay vital no matter how many years pass.
This is, as far as I’m concerned, different from botox and cosmetic surgery and obsessive fitness regimens designed to make you look younger than you really are. It’s all about being present in the world and not settling for preconceived notions of how you’re supposed to be living in your 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Here’s how Grierson puts it:
If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them, Langer says, they would fulfill their potential and improve their health. Langer’s technique of achieving a state of mindfulness is different from the one often utilized in Eastern “mindfulness meditation” — nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through your mind — that is everywhere today. Her emphasis is on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are “actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual” categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve. Indeed, “well-being and enhanced performance” were Langer’s goals from the beginning of her career.
Bucking conventional ideas about aging can take many forms. I’ve found that bicycling takes me back to my youth, as does other athletic pursuits like basketball, tennis, and golf. (I am always struck by the youthfulness of 80-year-old golfers.) But you don’t have to be athletically inclined to catch this wave. You can find it in your garden or in a lively conversation or on a walk in the woods. Anything that helps you connect to your younger self. Sometimes that can feel a little daunting, but the upside, as Langer tells Grierson, is worth the effort, because it will “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”