The concept of “successful aging” haunts me of late. Maybe it is just that I have time to think about aging now that I have achieved retiree status. Maybe while I continue getting older and older I wonder whether I am getting as much out of life as I should.
In an earlier post, Successful Aging (January 2014), I reported what experts in the field of gerontology have said on the subject of aging successfully. Robert Havighurst defined it as “the conditions of individual and social life under which the individual person gets a maximum of satisfaction and happiness and society maintains an appropriate balance among satisfactions for the various groups which make it up.” Sure, but not really helpful.
The MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America concluded that lifestyle choices determine how well we age. Other experts say that successful aging, or aging “well,” means achieving balance among the environmental, emotional, spiritual, social, physical and cultural aspects of your life. It has to do with quality of life and life satisfaction. The conditions of successful aging are capability, control and purpose. The characteristics of successful aging include physical health, financial security, productivity, independence, optimism, and involvement with people and activities that are meaningful and supportive.
Successful aging seems to grow more nebulous the more I think about it. What does it mean to age successfully? Does the concept of successful aging mean that there is a right way and a wrong way to become more old?
I don’t think that “success” is the prime objective here. After all, doesn’t everyone succeed at getting older? I think that “optimal aging” is a better goal. What is “optimal” depends, certainly, on your personality, characteristics and circumstances. Yet, the same words that the experts use to define “successful aging” apply as well to the concept of living—and aging—optimally: quality of life, maximum satisfaction and happiness, balance, capability, control and purpose.
Characteristics such as physical health and financial security influence what optimal living looks like for someone, but that should not mean that a person who lacks health and wealth cannot age successfully. That person can still achieve a life that is optimal.
Discovering what is optimal for yourself is the objective, or at least one of the objectives, of life. The discovery is ongoing and evolving. To seek to discover is to grow.
There is an underlying hopefulness about seeking an optimal life. Optimal living focuses on the future.
The objective of living optimally applies to all ages. It is not just for old people.
For me, optimal living means living as a retired person, quieting the demons of my past, celebrating maturity, achieving the leisure of an earlier epoch, looking for what makes me wiser and happier. I have the good fortune—some might say the blessings—of good health, financial comfort, and more than 66 years of life to learn from. I am educated. I know enough to avoid the risk factors for disease. I can afford to improve my diet, and I exercise as much as I can stand. My mind is intact, despite the occasional incident of forgetfulness. I engage with life, although I have always tended to be more solitary than is good for me and I have few friends. I know the devotion of a forty-year marriage.
According to one online calculator, I can expect to live another 21 years.
Some of the experts define successful aging as “life satisfaction.” Although it is optimal to feel a sense of well-being and contentment, achieving life satisfaction suggests that there is no more room for desire, no more rivers to cross, no more need for seeking an optimal life. Yet, optimally, satisfaction is temporary.
Social participation (and having a supportive social network), spirituality (understanding one’s values and principles), and finding meaning or purpose may be elements of optimal living for some, but I am not sure that these elements are essential to everyone’s optimal life. More critical and indispensable elements of optimal living include a positive outlook, the ability to control at least some circumstances of living, and the ability to adapt, to change and to grow.
Living optimally implies having the capacity for enjoyment, if not happiness. Living optimally means resisting fear of failure, fear of the future, even fear of death.
I believe that there are mental habits that help us to live optimally. Some of these are being appreciative, being generous, finding humor in life, and always looking for ways to make the world a better place. Likewise, there are bad mental habits that undermine optimal living. There is nothing to be gained from measuring the quality of your own life against your perceptions of someone else’s. Equally useless is indulging in negative beliefs about growing old. Wallowing in visions of misery or plodding through the mire of self-pity are unhelpful and should be given no place in the optimal life.
Optimal living is a fluid process. Unlike “success,” it is not a destination or an accomplishment. It is active, not passive. You choose to live optimally, and you follow your own path. It is a matter of being adventurous in the pursuit of the positive force, the good spirit, the best possible life.