The oldest among us aren’t upbeat because they’ve survived; they’ve survived because they’re upbeat.
My old friend The Captain tends to lean a bit toward the morose side of life. He’s midway through his eighth decade and generally worries too much about things he can’t control. His wife is ailing, his children and grandchildren are far-flung, and his Mad Men days in the New York magazine scene have receded into the far corners of his memory. Antsy by nature, he’s constantly immersing himself in one project or another in a mostly fruitless effort to recover a measure of the relevance he once enjoyed.
When life gets too dark, TC will sometimes drop me a line and suggest we get together to hash things out. So we rendezvoused for lunch the other day, TC lugging a satchel full of books and notebooks (he likes to take notes) and displaying all the enigmatic gregariousness that made him such a great sales guy. We quickly dispensed with the pre-holiday cheer, though, and as is our custom, got down to business. His youngest brother had recently died. His wife’s illness had forced them to sell their winter retreat in Arizona. He had decided to quit a part-time ad-sales job. Trump was still president.
We compared notes on grieving (he’s better at it than I am) and wrestled awhile with the many ways we become attached to people and things and how tough it is to stay focused on what’s happening right now rather than lamenting the past or worrying about the future. Life is full of ups and downs, we agreed. The key is to remember that everything — good and bad — is temporary.
“This is how it is now,” I explained. He reached for his notebook and scrawled the words on a patch of open space.
We parted as amiably as usual, but as he turned to walk away, I grabbed his arm. “Be happy!” I said.
He chuckled and moved along.
I was thinking about The Captain last week after I stumbled upon a piece in the New York Times suggesting that the key to happiness is to “think like an old person.” The latest in a series of articles profiling a group of New York–area nonagenarians, John Leland’s story offers some real-life evidence to back research showing that we geezers are more content than younger folks.
“If they were not always gleeful, they were resilient and not paralyzed by the challenges that came their way,” Leland writes of the six people he’s been following for the past three years. “All had known loss and survived. None went to a job he did not like, coveted stuff she could not afford, brooded over a slight on the subway, or lost sleep over events in the distant future. They set realistic goals. Only one said he was afraid to die.”
Despite their narrowed horizons, Leland’s subjects display levels of resilience “that would shame most 25-year-olds.” And he suggests that we would all become more resilient, more focused, more joyful if we followed their lead.
That may certainly be true, but there’s plenty of research pointing to a slightly different conclusion: If you want to live to a ripe old age, be happy. Leland’s nonagenarians aren’t upbeat because they’ve grown really old, in other words. They’ve grown really old because they’re upbeat.
A 2016 study at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “strong and statistically significant associations of increasing levels of optimism with decreasing risks of mortality” from major causes of death such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. This is probably due to the optimist’s tendency to have a healthier lipid profile, lower inflammation levels, higher antioxidant levels, and better immune function, notes lead study author Eric Kim, PhD.
“Our finding that optimism is associated with a wide range of causes of mortality adds to a growing evidence base that optimism plays an important role in health and longevity, further supporting the possibility that optimism could be a novel target for future research on prevention and intervention strategies aimed at improving public health,” Kim concludes.
In their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel take the positivity argument to the cellular level, arguing that your mindset can actually affect the length of your telomeres, hastening — or slowing — the rate at which your cells age. They describe specific negative traits, including cynical hostility, pessimism, rumination, thought suppression, and mind-wandering, as harmful to telomeres. In one study they cite, participants who reported the most mind-wandering tendencies had telomeres that were 200 base pairs shorter than their more focused peers. The average 65-year-old has about 4,800 base pairs, so that lack of focus can make a sizable difference.
“To an extent, it has surprised us and the rest of the scientific community that telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code,” they write. “Your telomeres are listening to you.”
I often wonder whether The Captain listens to my often incoherent and arcane bits of advice, so I was heartened to receive a text from him after our recent lunch. The photo he attached showed his notebook page where he had scribbled “This is how it is now.”
That made my day.