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Mind Over Matter: How to Age Successfully in Retirement

Insights & Ideas Team •  November 13, 2014 | Enjoying Retirement

Isn’t it strange how old and grown up we feel when we’re young, and yet how young we think we are when we’re actually old? Apparently, perception is reality, at least when it comes to aging in America.

A March 2014 report in AARP Magazine, “You’re Old, I’m Not,” found that 85 percent of people (ranging in age from 40 to 90) don’t see themselves as old yet. In fact, close to half of respondents (45.1 percent) think they look younger than they actually are. And in an interesting twist, more than a third (33.7 percent) of respondents described other people their own age as being older than they really are.

Chalk it up to poor eyesight? Maybe not.

Biological changes can and do occur as we age, impacting how long each of us may live. But researchers are finding that what may matter most when it comes to aging isn’t your definition of “how old is old” but rather how you feel about being “old.”

An important line of research on this subject was started in the 1990s by Yale University psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D. Levy and a team of researchers tracked 660 adults, ages 50 to 94, in a series of controlled experiments that spanned 23 years. That research, which was first published in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology in 2003, showed that adults who had positive attitudes about aging lived 7.5 years longer than peers whose attitudes about aging were negative. They had better memory and sharper hearing, and they were much more likely to recover fully from disability than those with negative age stereotypes.

Other researchers have also found that successful aging is more about attitude than genes. For example, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest, most comprehensive examinations of aging ever conducted, found that having good adjustment/coping skills (turning lemons into lemonade), maintaining strong social relationships (including a stable marriage) and pursuing education are more predictive than your genetic makeup is of whether you’ll move successfully from middle age into your 80s.

These and other studies seem to suggest that the course of aging isn’t etched in stone. Rather, there is a lot we can do to make living in retirement a great time of life, starting with the following:

1. Plan for happiness. Most people focus on the financial aspects of retirement planning. But what about retirement living? Before you can quantify how much money you’ll need in retirement, you need to have a picture of what you want your life to look like and how you want to feel. Explore the non-financial, emotional side of retirement by identifying your top priorities and the values that are most important to your life. Then come up with concrete ways to make those dreams come true.

2. Look for ways to enhance your life. As you think about retirement, consider activities you can do on an ongoing basis that bring you joy and add structure to your life. It could be teaching at a community college, coaching a grandchild’s Little League team or volunteering at the local hospital. Activities like these will not only provide personal satisfaction; they’ll also help keep your mind sharp and enable you to create close connections with other people, which is vital to healthy aging.

3. Include your spouse or partner. If you’re married or live with someone, share your hopes and dreams. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that your partner would love to learn a new language with you or make that long-dreamed-about trek to Machu Picchu. Your spouse might also have dreams of his/her own you’d enjoy sharing.

4. See the glass as half full. The physical and psychological changes that come with retirement and aging can be challenging. That’s why it’s crucial to eat well, maintain your weight and exercise regularly. And don’t forget the important role having a positive attitude can play in your overall well-being. If you feel your mood shifting, check in with yourself to explore why. If you feel sad or hopeless, it’s important to seek medical attention.

It’s a common saying these days that 70 is the new 50. But even as researchers continue to explore what it means to be old, it seems pretty clear that “elderly” may be more of a state of being than a certain age. For this reason, it may not matter whether someone else thinks of you as old; what’s important is whether you think of yourself that way.

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