Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Ulysses [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Don’t wait till you get there to age happily


Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses – Alfred Lord Tennyson

By Prof. Raveen Hanwella

There is a disease that will relentlessly erode your senses; the ability to see, hear, taste food and think clearly. It will reduce your energy and strength, and ultimately make you unable to drive or walk without help. You will also become vulnerable to other diseases like coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, arthritis, cataract, and diabetes. It will ultimately affect all human beings if they live sufficiently long. The name of this disease is, ageing.

The degree of disability will vary from person to person but all individuals, however fit they are will ultimately experience the declining of their faculties as they age.

Can Tennyson, writing in his famous poem Ulysses, be right? Marcus Tullius Cicero was a famous orator and statesman of ancient Rome. He lost his daughter early and his career, when he refused to support Julius Caesar. Ageing and alone he left Rome and retreated to his country estate. Instead of committing suicide or becoming an alcoholic he continued to write and study philosophy and literature. Shortly before the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, he wrote a short essay titled De Senectute translated as How to Grow Old.
In a conversational style, Cicero gives four reasons why people consider old age to be a miserable time. First, it makes us less active, second, it weakens the body, third, it reduces sensual pleasures and fourth, it takes us nearer death. He then gives ten reasons why old age can be a wonderful time of life. A good old age begins in youth, old age can be a wonderful part of life, there are proper seasons to life, older people have much to teach the young, old age need not deny us an active life, but we need to accept limitations, the mind is a muscle that must be exercised, older people need to stand up for themselves, sex is highly overrated, cultivate your own garden and, death is not to be feared.

Is this simply the wishful thinking of an ageing philosopher or is there a scientific basis for old philosophy? Laura Carstensen is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity of the University of Stanford. She is a leading figure in the study of the psychology of ageing. Her writings have appeared in the New York Times and the Time magazine, and her TED talk has been viewed more than a million times. I would suggest that you watch it. She has published her findings in a book titled A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health and Financial Security in an Era of Increased Longevity, in 2011.

According to 2014 WHO figures, the life expectancy for a Sri Lankan male is 72 and for females 78. Compare that to the average life expectancy in the 1950s of 58 years. Across the world, in rich as well as in poorer countries, life expectancy has increased dramatically. In her TED talk, Prof. Carstensen points out that, “More years were added to average life expectancy in the 20th century than all years added across all prior millennia of human evolution combined. In the blink of an eye, we nearly doubled the length of time that we’re living”. Though no different genetically than our ancestors 10,000 years ago through science and technology and the subsequent improvement in health and safety we have added many more years to our lives. But does this translate into happy longer lives or is it simply a meaningless prolongation of misery?

There is a question that has puzzled longevity researchers for decades. Though on average elderly persons experience significant losses physically and mentally, it does not reduce their happiness. In fact, the opposite is true. Elderly persons report feeling happier than when they were younger, healthier, and stronger. This surprising finding is called the positivity paradox. How can we explain this?
Carstensen and her co-workers studied a group of individuals originally aged 18 to 94 over a decade. The participants carried electronic pagers and at random intervals, throughout the day they were asked, on a scale of one to seven, whether they were happy, sad or frustrated at that moment in time. They found that the same individuals over time expressed greater positivity as they aged. Not that they were necessarily happier but they were more positive. They were more likely than younger people to experience mixed emotions but they engaged with sadness more effectively and were more accepting of sadness than younger people.

In another study by Carstensen, older persons shown a mixture of happy and unhappy faces were more likely to remember the positive images compared to younger persons. Overall the elderly were more likely to recall positive memories, more likely to focus on pleasant thoughts, look for and retain more favourable information, look on happy faces and focus on the positive aspects of goods. It was as if the older persons had decided that they would make the most of their remaining years by concentrating on the positive and excluding the negative. Was this due to greater cognitive impairment? Not so. The most cognitively sharp elderly were more likely to show this bias towards positivity compared to those with cognitive impairment.

When we come to realise that we won’t live for ever it changes our perspective on life in positive ways. For the young, time seems to stretch into the future for ever and they are more willing to take risks and explore new horizons. They may spend more time with people or experiences they don’t like in the hope of learning something unexpected. The older person, knowing that they don’t have all the time in the world, see their priorities more clearly and spend less time on the trivial. They are more appreciative of life and are more open to reconciliation.

An important question is, do we have to wait until old age to benefit from the wisdom that comes with age? Research shows that this need not be so. We can reap the benefits of an elder’s view of life, but as is with most things worth having, it takes time, energy and focus.

So, modern science validates ancient philosophy and we can agree with Robert Browning when he says in his poem Rabi Ben Ezra, Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.

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