December 2011

What drives the disconnect between us and our future selves?

Two friends sent me links to a piece by James Ridgeway’s piece in the Guardian about the future of growing old in America.(Bottom line: not looking good.  Better to be British, though not for long or by much.) What caught my eye wasn’t the greedy-geezer-rebutting statistics that millions of older Americans can expect to keep working or to be poor – or both.  It was the first line: “In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.”

The belief that ageism takes root in precisely this unwillingness to acknowledge the old as our future selves has become central to my thinking, and it was thrilling to find myself in synch with a writer I greatly respect. But only up to a point, because I no longer think fear of death is what drives this detachment, at least not universally. I don’t think the young devote a lot of cycles to mortality or aging:  it won’t happen to them. Teenagers are immortal, young adults nearly so (and modern neuroscience tells us that their brains are still forming). To them the old aren’t scary reminders that life is short; the old are largely invisible, their status abstract. When we’re young, it’s unimaginable that sitting will become preferable to running, just as it’s inconceivable that our parents had sex: logic dictates but is overruled. Perhaps this detachment is culturally constructed; after all, The Coming of Age is a historical survey of different civilizations’ attitudes towards aging.  But I don’t think so. I think it this disconnect between present and future selves stems from the nature of human psychology and development.

Furthermore, if it’s fear of mortality that drives the divide, wouldn’t that fear remain a relatively fixed psychic point across the life cycle?  It’s certainly a touchstone across cultures, the wellspring of myth and religion. But as the once-unthinkable moves from evident to imminent, that psychic point of reference shifts in each of us, even changing from a source of dread to a source of happiness. How and when we experience this transition depends on personality, circumstance, catalyst. At 88, my admirable but maddening mother-in-law has yet to yield to it. Some dread death, others the process that precedes it. My partner is afraid of dying but not of growing old. Aging, after all, means living.  I’m a moving target, comforted at the moment by this quote: “I imagine life after my death will be just like it was before my birth.” (Source, anyone?)

But we age in culture, one that neglects and sequesters the old. De Beauvoir went on to say, "Until the moment it is upon us, old age is something that only affects other people. So it is understandable that society should prevent us from seeing our own kind, our fellow-men, when we look at the old." A humane society, however, would assist that process rather than obstruct it, by treating its oldest members well.

Are old people happier because they’re aware that time is short?

When I first learned that the oldest Americans are the happiest, I was skeptical.  I was still in the grips of the cultural bias that drowns out positive messages about late life.  Also, happiness is notoriously difficult to measure.  (Ask me right after I’ve eaten a chocolate chip cookie.) So I was intrigued when a counterintuitive factor behind contentment — at any age — surfaced in a recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology

(Positive psychology studies aspects of the human condition that lead to happiness and fulfillment, and make life worth living. I wonder if there’s a companion publication for cynics.)  

Conducted by researchers from Eastern Washington University and Hofstra University, the study investigated the link between gratitude and mortality, because gratitude has been shown to have lasting effects on well-being. In particular, the researchers wondered whether reflecting on death would help people appreciate life as limited and transitory, and so make them feel more grateful.

Study participants were assessed for levels of gratitude, then divided into three groups.  Members of the first one simply visualized their typical daily routines. Those in Group Two wrote down their thoughts about death. In Group Three, the rubber hit the road: members were instructed to imagine themselves trapped by a fire “on the 20th floor of an old, downtown building,” and made “futile attempts to escape from the room and burning building before finally giving in to the fire and eventually death.” Those participants emerged from the study dramatically more grateful.

Visualizing a grisly near-death experience is a rough route to bliss. It feels good when you pull your hand out of the flame too.  But the results suggest how readily we take life for granted, and how, as the researchers write, “reflecting on one’s own death might help individuals take stock of this benefit and consequently increase their appreciation for life.” Potent reminders of mortality, hospital visits and funerals, crowd the calendars of the old. What an excellent paradox that this should buttress a sense of well-being.