The elder person is either spinning the story or forgetting the details, so their advice is fanciful, at best. However, there’s more here than meets the eye. Forgetting and spinning are psychological coping skills we perfect in old age.
We sometimes change our view of history to be able to live with ourselves.
For example, some of the elders in the study* who were beaten and starved during childhood reached a place of forgiveness in old age, and now viewed their parents as tough but loving. Some of the brilliant women, who were denied careers and high wages due to discrimination and the sexism of the time, adopted a sunnier retrospective on this injustice. These coping mechanisms were discovered because the researchers had recorded what actually happened and what was actually said, back when study participants were kids, young adults, middle-aged, older, and old. The foregoing are two examples of sublimation.
Sublimation, in my words, is putting the best spin on something you can’t fix, and really being okay with that. This is a capability that’s beyond the reach of younger people. In Dr. Vaillant’s words, “Such maturation requires emotional development, years of experience…and the continued biologic evolution of our brains, whose connecting pathways–especially those integrating desire and reason–continue to mature past age 40.”
As one elderly member of the study put it:
Contrary to all expectations, I seem to grow happier as I grow older. I think that America has been sold on the theory that youth is marvelous but old age is a terror. On the contrary, it’s taken me sixty years to learn how to live reasonably well, to do my work, and cope with my inadequacies.
The other three main coping strategies that we develop with maturity are:
- humor (the ability to laugh at what can’t be changed, and while laughing, not cause others to suffer)
- altruism (getting pleasure from giving to others what we would like to receive)
- suppression (in my words, this is the ability to stifle yourself in unpleasant circumstances, and still be happy. It’s not denial; it involves being fully aware of the cause and outcome, but it’s done for the greater good. Think of keeping your mouth shut when the drama kicks in at, say, a holiday dinner.)
One of the most surprising things I learned was that an unhappy childhood is probably the least important predictor of happiness in old age. Per Dr. V., “…unhappy childhoods became less important with time…a bleak childhood did not condemn (them) to misery.” When a study subject reached his/her seventies, the difficult childhoods (and I mean difficult even to the point of malnutrition and abandonment) did not correlate with poor mental or physical health.
Women Overlooked: The Flaw in the Studies
Here is one description of healthy aging from another elderly (male, of course) participant:
Old age is knowing what I’m doing, the respect of others, a relatively sane financial base, a loving wife, and the realization that what I can’t beat I can endure.
But what about the “loving wife”? What was her secret recipe for aging well? We’ll never know. The studies began in the early part of the last century, and focused on men. Dr. Vaillant apologizes for that, and tried to balance things out by including data from female participants of the The Terman Study.
I picture the men being interviewed about their views on aging, and saying they had great wives that they were crazy about. And I’d imagine the woman smiling and gritting her teeth through the interview, and wish I could ask her, what was it like giving up your dreams to help this man be successful? And how are you aging now? How did your experience of aging alongside this happy man compare to his? For example, the wonderful coping mechanism of suppression: I’d bet money that women learn it early and deeply, and what if it isn’t good for them? Furthermore, I’d bet money that women actually STOP suppressing as they age, as opposed to the men. But we’ll never know. Not that I’m bitter. 😉
Next Friday, I’ll wrap up the Aging Well series by sharing Dr. Vaillant’s findings that will help you create a better old age for yourself.
*the book Aging Well by Dr. George E. Vaillant is based on the analysis of three longevity studies spanning, in some cases, almost eighty years. During this time, the researchers interviewed individuals from childhood through old age and recorded their observations.