Aging may be inevitable, but holding a negative stereotype about it is not. Research from Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer shows that we can actually turn the clock back in surprising ways through shifts in our expectations. Here’s a non-affiliate link to Langer’s book on mindful health.
[ music ] Hi, this is Rob Sepich, and welcome to Relaxing with Rob. Would you like to turn the clock back on your age? Globally, we spend about 50 billion U.S. dollars each year on anti-aging products and services. And since ageism is one of the last acceptable prejudices in many parts of the Western world, we put a lot of effort into looking young. In episode 42, "Avoid Snap Judgments," I shared how I'm working through my own implicit bias against older people, and how it started only after I became one of them! So it runs deep for a lot of us. I have a Zumba friend in her mid-twenties who once complained to me about her aches and pains that she attributed to age. And I got to tell you , I wasn't able to offer her much empathy. But our conversation reminded me that feeling old can happen earlier than you might think. For example, last year I read a journal entry I made after my first year of college about somebody I had started to date, and I wrote that I was so happy because [quote] "she made me feel young again." I was 19 at the time! There are cultures where age is revered, and wrinkles are embraced, and wisdom gained from our experience counts more than our looks. In their song, "Good Old Days," Macklemore and Kesha sing about having some scars, feeling some pain, but being here now. Their most relevant line for us today is, "I ain't worried 'bout the wrinkles 'round my smile." I would put their song on repeat whenever I found myself looking a little too long at my own scars and wrinkles. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art." So what age means to you is mostly culturally determined. And the degree to which we accept this is on us. Personally, I'm all about embracing the benefits of age at every stage of life. But my goal today is more nuanced than that. It's to first challenge some of your assumptions about the aging process. And I'll see if I can help reduce your anxiety and make it then easier to embrace the benefits of getting older. Here's how. If you're up for swimming against the tide of Western culture (but hey, how hard can that be?) I'd like to share some research by the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer from her 2009 book, "Counter-clockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility." Langer has published more than 200 research papers, so although her work on mindfulness in particular has helped countless people, she's not a self-help author; she's a scientist. And for your convenience, I'll place a non-affiliate link to it in the show notes. In other words, if you purchase a copy, I don't receive anything. Okay. She's done 30 years of research on turning the clock back, not just psychologically, but her novel research is on doing it physically. She and her colleagues have demonstrated improvements for older adults in vision, appearance, and longevity, just through shifts in our expectations and our behaviors. It turns out that so much of what we think are inevitable effects of age are actually not. They're self-created beliefs, and our behaviors then follow suit. One self-fulfilling prophecy begets another. And when I read her book, I knew it was even more evidence for the power of the placebo effect that I talked about in episode 41, "Return to Wellness." Langer writes a lot about the healthcare industry in the U.S. And she knows it's hard to be a provider, but it's also hard to be a patient. And she points out, it's partly because of our mindsets that we bring to health and to disease. And when we passively accept diagnoses and medications and the typical course of an illness, reality often follows suit. But when we're willing to reasonably question our providers and be active members of our healthcare team, the course of our illness can often improve. Years ago, a doctor told my wife that she would never ride a bike again. And she wasn't willing to accept that pronouncement, so she got a second opinion and a referral for physical therapy. She did her homework and improved, and years later she still bikes regularly and without injury. So lesson number one is: be an active healthcare consumer. The author also talks about correlation not implying causation. If you've ever taken a statistics class, you already know that. For example, we know tumors are correlated with premature death, but just because you're diagnosed with one does not mean you're going to die early from one. Yet, when we think "cancer equals death," and we lose hope, we don't have much of a chance to use all the resources available to us for treatment. So lesson number two is: learn what statistics actually mean. And if you don't understand them, ask a trusted person who does. A fascinating study that Langer conducted with Becca Levy on memory decline and older people found that in cultures without negative stereotypes about old age, a little memory loss still occurred, but not nearly as much as in cultures with negative stereotypes about old age. So lesson number three: some age-related "changes" in our health don't necessarily mean "decline." Whether you're 19 and want to feel young again like I did then or you're much older and feeling some effects of entropy, there is hope. In fact, there's more than hope. There's evidence that it doesn't have to be the way you think it is. A former student in our stress management class described her identical twin great aunts. One lived in a retirement community in the South and one in a large Midwestern city. The Southern relative spent her time mostly sitting on her balcony, and watching TV, and complaining about her age. The big-city relative lived in a walkup apartment, climbing a couple of flights of stairs most every day, and was pretty involved with her neighborhood. And the student told us that they seemed to be about 15 years apart in their age. Those two relatives served as important teachers for the student on choices and expectations she could make about aging. And she already held her big-city aunt as a role model for healthy aging. In the musical "Pippin," a character reveals a secret she never has told, and she thinks maybe you'll understand why. She believes [quote] "If I refuse to grow old, I can stay young 'til I die." That's what I'm doing, and I hope you will too. Thank you for listening, and we'll talk again soon. [ music ]