As someone in his early sixties, I feel like I’m sometimes asked to be a spokesman for those in the “older” generations who are adamant (or even defiant) about staying smack in the center of life. I make no bones about my “live long, drop dead” philosophy (I even made accessories to the effect.) Numerous times I’ve shared that in some ways I’m just reaching what I consider my peak. There are days I genuinely think I’ve never had more fun, contentment and satisfaction in my life than I do right now. Unfortunately, the dominant culture pushes a different message for those of us over 50 (and definitely over 60). I’m talking about the message that these decades inevitably put us on the sidelines, ushering in an inevitable fade-out of all our faculties and enjoyments. But guess what? I’m here to tell you some good news: that doesn’t have to be your destiny. In fact, there’s a whole lot to look forward to as you grow older.
It’s yet another bizarre, perturbing product of modernism that we don’t focus on the positive aspects of aging. The historical and sociological truth is that cultures throughout time have paid exceptional honor, respect, and social currency to their elders—and for good reason. Our primal ancestors undoubtedly depended on those with the most life experience to help support and teach critical survival skills and adaptive reasoning.
In fact, a pivotal cultural boon in humanity’s evolution some 30,000-35,000 years ago came in large part, experts suggest, because of increasing longevity. Longer average lifespans meant more older people around who could pass on information and show the rest of the group how it’s done—not to mention offer childrearing support for the young members of their groups. The more life experience Grandpa Grok had, the more practice of many arts he could draw (and teach) from. The more years Grok had seen, the more scenarios and outcomes he could recall for reasoning and anticipating current conflicts and crises. Knowledge matters for survival, and without ample means of recording information (minus cave drawings), it needed to come straight from the direct instruction of older generations themselves.
But I get it. In a society where aging too often coincides with the automatic surrender to preventable lifestyle diseases, we can get a grossly skewed impression. That said, when we take care of ourselves with a mind toward compressed morbidity (living as well and able-bodied as possible to the very end), our later decades can be some of our most satisfying. Maybe it’s time I accept that poster boy challenge after all.
Sure, when I was younger I wouldn’t have anticipated this turn of events. I was too busy doing, striving, training, moving onto the next thing. As exciting as those years were with an elite athletic profession, a succession of business ventures, and (later) two small children, I frankly wouldn’t trade what I have now to go back. I was often tired, anxious, overworked, overtrained and, well, unhealthy compared to how I feel now. These days I’m enjoying so many things I didn’t have the time, focus or priorities to appreciate then. And it’s not just a matter of the dust having settled. I’m still busy! But there are aspects of me that have fundamentally changed—aspects that could only transform over the long arc of time and experience.
In unfortunate contrast, youth more than ever today is set on a precarious pedestal with the message that these are your glory days; the only days you’ll feel good and be the center of attention. From a health perspective, it’s often a case of better live it up before your crummy habits catch up with you. From a developmental perspective, however, there’s something maybe even sadder—the assumption that your best times, your biggest joys, your most valuable achievements are behind you two to three decades in. No wonder so many young people struggle emotionally these days.
Before I get to the research—to the specifics and stories—let me offer this in no uncertain terms. If you expect your life to be a static continuum of the same activities and ventures, the same routines and figures with equal to increasing gratification, you’ll very likely be disappointed.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to trust your own life as an exploration through varying phases, interests and redirects, you’ll find that your later decades hold as much (if not more) capacity for depth, joy and enrichment as your younger years. Certainly good health can and will help, but attitude (I’ve so often said it) ultimately determines your course. And that (more than health) is always a choice. That crabby older man you know was probably a crabby younger man. Age, like alcohol, exacerbates the traits that were already there.
As in every transition—whether it be reclaiming health, choosing a new career path, or having a child, your willingness to change and be changed will largely determine your success and contentment.
Now let’s dig into some of these benefits.
There is something to the idea that (many) people mellow with age. Studies suggest that people in their later decades have an easier time regulating their emotions, particularly anger. While we might all develop our emotional awareness, as we age those emotions tend to crowd out less. In research scenarios, older adults reported better capacity for resisting impulsive responses and for maintaining goal-directed behavior. Likewise, older study participants showed heightened “clarity of emotions” and better regulation strategies than their younger counterparts.
I’ve heard many people say as much, but there’s solid research to back up this assertion. Older adults put a higher value and attention on the emotional dimensions of their interactions with others. As a result, they may be more attuned to other people in their relationships and, in conjunction with their greater emotional regulation, more able to listen and respond empathetically. Additionally, research shows, they’re better at recalling the emotional dimension of their interactions and experiences. I’ve heard people say they’ve gotten “soft” or “sentimental” in their “old age.” In truth, it’s likely a growing capacity for compassion and a deeper appreciation for the less obvious gifts and meaning within their experiences.
A few years ago multiple national and international studies suggested people around the globe commonly experience happiness in a “U-shaped pattern” over the course of their lifetimes. Although where this pattern fell within particular ages varied from culture to culture, the pattern held as a seemingly universal experience. Researchers even noted that apes appeared to move through the same model based on their caretakers’ reports.
Study authors noted that the midpoints generally represented the most crowded years when people are likely to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and perhaps disillusioned with certain paths they’d chosen. Yet, something shifts that swings happiness upward again, whether it be acceptance of their circumstances, a round of achievements, a lightening of the load, or a renewal through new interests or opportunities.
Yup, that’s right—new. All the talk today is usually about maintaining what we have, and while that’s important, aging offers its own novel benefits on the neurological front.
In the latter half of life, the two hemispheres of the brain increasingly integrate and functionally intertwine. Additionally, our “patterning” capacity (the ever complexifying networking of our many ideas and experiences that create new connections and combinations) further develops in these decades.
While these likely are meant to help compensate for the minor declines in certain cognitive abilities such as working memory, these enhanced means of cognitive integration open the door for more creative thought and advanced reasoning.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 9 out of 10 workers over the age of fifty were very or somewhat satisfied in their current jobs and were happier in their positions than younger workers. Not only do many older workers enjoy a greater sense of security because of higher income and promotions, but they reported also feeling more respected in their workplaces.
There’s a certain gratification that comes with appreciating a long span of growth and accomplishment in a given field or across fields for those who have changed career tracks. In the later years, when it’s typically less about striving, you may have a unique opportunity to look back and recognize the gifts and lessons of your professional development.
Let’s be honest. When we’re young, we’re winging it. There’s a thrill to this exploratory, experimental time. Anything can feel possible. It’s vital to go through that period, to know that brand of euphoric, idealistic fervor—and, yet, it’s not the end-all.
In our later years, a deeper patience often settles in—a patience and present-mindset that softens the emotional impact of any decline we might see in ourselves perhaps, but also a patience with the world around us. Having seen so much of life at that point, our youthful idealism might wear differently these days, but it doesn’t necessarily change our enthusiasm or drive. Purpose matters in these decades, but it may become more personal as we home in on our remaining time to live life and achieve the changes we want to see.
So what does this all come down to?
With age, you can gain the unprecedented gift of the bigger perspective—on your own life and more.
While I’m grateful for all the challenges and phases and joys of my younger days, there’s a sense of groundedness, self-possession and culmination I get to enjoy now.
As something called socioemotional selectivity theory suggests, we become more content with life as we age and grow more conscious of our limited number of years left. Our mortality settles in, and there’s a kickstart response to that. We feel called to take our lives more seriously, to make our experiences count and to be grateful for the life we have today. Some people call it making peace with one’s life—moving through the last years and decades with a maturity to accept life on life’s terms (termination included) but to still find your way through it with more gratitude and gracefulness.
This is the part my thirty-something self never would’ve been able to fully, viscerally understand (beyond mere intellectual comprehension) because it wasn’t the task of that stage and shouldn’t be. With years comes a greater appreciation for the composite—how we’ve lived our own lives and how we still wish to experience it. But it also brings a greater reverence for continuity—the overarching human story we get to play a part in for a little while. It simultaneously helps keep me rooted in the immediate present and expands my awe for all the possibilities I’ve seen, will see and won’t have a chance to see in this lifetime.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear what’s been true for you about the benefits of later decades—the ones you anticipated and maybe those you never saw coming. Have a great end to the week.
Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.