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Aging & Society

Getting “Better with Age” Isn’t Just for Wine and Cheese

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Fear of aging is nothing new in American culture.

And yet, research shows that our sense of well-being actually increases after age 50[1]. That notion is one of the premises behind Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, a non-fiction book written by psychologists Mindy Greenstein, M.D., age 53, and Jimmie Holland, M.D., age 88. Both authors have found — in agreement with research — that our later-in-life years really are a better place to be.

We spoke with them about what they’ve learned along the way. (Note: the interview has been edited for brevity).

GetOld (GO): I learned from your book that our fears of aging may have been misplaced. Talk to me about that.

Mindy Greenstein (MG): “I think that we assume it’s all downhill from here. In fact, if you read the book, you know about the data suggesting that the feeling of well-being in life goes in this sort of u-shaped curve [also known as the “u-bend”] throughout the adult years, where you’re feeling pretty good about your life in your early 20s and by the time you hit your early 50s you’re really sort of at rock bottom. But the big surprise was that from there on in, your feeling of well-being actually went up with age. The 50s are better than the 40s and the 60s are better than the 50s. So there are actually many positive things we can look forward to.”

Jimmie Holland (JH): “I think Mindy is right, and I think now at 88, I sort of belong in a group of people who are having a tremendously long time to live. So you begin to have a little different view of aging, which says I better make the most of every day I’ve got, and I better see my grandkids and enjoy that concert. I guess we call it ‘enjoying the now’ -- not so much looking into the future, but to appreciate that life is pretty good.”

GO: Speaking from a personal point of view, what are some things people can look forward to as they get older? What are some things you’ve most enjoyed about your 80s, Jimmie?

JH: “I think there are a few less obligations. Children have grown up, although you worry about the grandchildren. I think you have a little bit more time. I find myself enjoying gardening, for example, which I would never have taken the time to do in the past. I think it’s appreciating what one does have, or appreciating the relationships that are so meaningful.”

GO: In the book, you talk about the importance of different generations mixing. How can people be better about that? Why is it important?

MG: “I think it’s important from all sorts of different perspectives. For one, I think the best way to de-stigmatize the concept of aging is for younger people to really know people who are older, to really interact with people and to not think of it as ’us‘ vs. ’them.’ When you’re younger, your images of aging will come from TV and from your own parents. And some people are really lucky, and their parents have had a great aging process and they really inspired their kids. But not everybody had that experience. It would be great if people could have lots of other examples of old age to be able to pick from to recognize that there are lots of ways of living older. It would be so inspiring for a 20-something to say, ’I wish I could be as happy as them,’ and then look forward to hitting 70 and 80.”

GO: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self when it comes to aging?

MG: “Chill out! I think one of the things that happens when you’re 20 is you have feelings about what’s going to happen, but you really have no idea what will be. And things that you might think at 20 are really scary and horrible, when you look back 30 years later, you might think it’s a really good thing that a really crummy thing happened to you.”

JH: “Good things come out of sad things. That can happen. I also have this friend who said ‘always leave room for serendipity.’ Things come along you didn’t expect, and they can be really good things.”

To learn more about Lighter as We Go visit theartoflivinglighter.com.


[1] Arthur A. Stone, Joseph E. Schwartz, Joan E. Broderick, and Angus Deaton. A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States. PNAS 2010 107 (22) 9985-9990; published ahead of print May 17, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.100374410.

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