There are good ways to grow old and bad ways to age. What makes the difference? In the August 2002 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Yale university researchers Becca Levy and Martin Slade and others reported on the results of their study of people’s attitudes toward aging and how important this is to aging gracefully. These researchers re-examined the data that was gathered on 660 people in the town of Oxford, Ohio, who were interviewed in 1975 when they were 50 years old. They looked at five questions which constituted the individual’s attitude toward aging. These were as follows:
‘Things keep getting worse as I get older.” (no)
‘I have as much pep as I did last year.” (yes)
“As you get older, you are less useful.” (no)
‘I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.” (yes)
“As I get older, things are better than I thought they would be.” (yes)
Participants received a score from 0 to 5, based on agreement with the responses above. Then they looked at the death rates of those with positive and negative attitudes toward aging. The results were significant. Those with higher scores (a more positive attitude toward aging) lived on average 7.6 years longer than those with negative attitudes. The authors considered the possibility that perhaps it was the individual’s good health or poor health, or other factors, that predicted survival rates. However, even when these were examined separately, people’s attitudes toward aging were stronger predictive factors than male-female gender, loneliness, physical health, or household income.
The researchers then considered whether still another factor, called will to live, is what actually shaped people’s attitudes toward aging. They measured this by looking at people’s answers, when they were 50, to the questions of whether they felt their lives were empty or full, whether they were hopeless or hopeful, and whether they saw themselves as worthless or worthy. As expected, those who endorsed the items full, hopeful, and worthwhile, to describe their lives, were the same ones who were happier and living longer.
Consider this for comparison. Weighing less, not smoking, and exercising is likely to add only 1 to 3 years to your life, while having a positive outlook is likely to add 7.6 years. If you’re having trouble losing weight and don’t go the gym as often as you should, do a kindness for someone today instead. It may do you as much good or more insofar as extending your life.
Watch another movie about people aging. What is their attitude about aging? Are the characters’ lives empty or full? worthless or worthy? hopeless or hopeful?
Levy, B., Slade, M., Kunkel, S., & Kasl, S. 2002. Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2), 261-270.
Szegedy-Maszak, M. Aug. 5, 2002. “Good Old Thoughts.” U.S. News & World Report, p. 47.
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