Do we get wiser as we age?

I hope so. From what I’ve seen, many people do get wiser as they get older – but certainly not everyone. The cranky old man and the bitter old woman – we’ve all met them, right? Surely we can do something to prevent that from happening to us.

My favorite book on the subject is called Aging Well, by George Vaillant, with the long subtitle of Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Perhaps you’ve heard of this Harvard study, which began in 1938 and followed a set of more than 200 Harvard graduates with detailed questionnaires, interviews, and physical exams regularly throughout their lives.

When this book was written in 2002, the Harvard study men had just passed age 80, and their answers give interesting insights into how to age well – with a zest for life – and what went wrong for those who aged poorly. Because that study included only privileged men, Dr. Vaillant, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, also included responses from inner-city Boston blue-collar men as well as older women interviewed for a similar Stanford study. He looked for clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age.

So why did some of these people live long lives, relatively happy and healthy, and why did others end up sad or sick? Was it genetics? Childhood poverty? Personality type? Not so much. Successful emotional and physical aging, Vaillant found, does not depend on things we can’t control but rather on things we can: not smoking and drinking, figuring out mature ways to cope, staying fit, and sustaining a loving relationship.

How to grow old with grace? Here’s how Vaillant sums up his findings:

  1. Care about others and be open to new ideas.
  2. Gracefully accept help when you need it.
  3. Maintain hope in life and cherish initiative.
  4. Retain a sense of humor and a capacity for play.
  5. Take sustenance from the past but continue to learn from the next generation.
  6. Maintain contact and intimacy with old friends.

This is just a summary. The book contains a lot more – great examples and surprising insights. My biggest surprise: old age does not correlate with deepening spirituality. I found that chapter disturbing! If you find this topic fascinating, I recommend you check out this book.

What do you think is the secret to aging well – and wisely?