Category Archives: Later, on health

The Pursuit of Awesomeness

One of the most overused words in the English language today is “awesome.” It seems that any old mundane thing can be awesome. We tend to say “that’s awesome” to express our gratitude or delight when “thank you” feels too intimate or “that’s great” seems too insincere. But putting awesomeness in the service of the commonplace erodes our sensibilities and our capacity to experience and express our response to what is truly awesome.

In my own life, the truly awesome experiences have been moments when I have encountered something of surpassing beauty. For me, the sources of the awesome have most often been in nature, in art or in music. Some things just fill me with awe, but they are the extraordinary, the mind-blowing, the exceptional. The mundane can never be awesome.

Awe is an emotional response to experiences that are in some way magnificent or powerful. It is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our ordinary understanding of the world. In the awesome, we sense something mysterious that is greater than ourselves, and what is awesome is somehow spiritual or even sacred to us.

Awe may prompt us to be kinder to others and to act in more collaborative ways. It might help us cope better with stress by promoting curiosity and exploration, rather than withdrawal and isolation.

When we are awestruck, our sense of personal importance recedes. Day-to-day worries seem small and insignificant by comparison. We feel a connection to something larger than ourselves.

We are connected to the awesome because we are its witness. Our emotional response to it is the awesomeness.

In the instant of awe, time grows larger without seeming to pass at all. Indeed, time seems to stand still. We are “in the moment,” and the moment is timeless. Awe does not give us more time, but it may make the time we have seem greater. Awe’s enlargement of time makes our lives fuller, and our allotted years seem larger as well. And the more often we experience awe, the greater, more satisfying life becomes. Awe gives us an emotional lift, and we cannot get enough of it.

The pursuit of awesomeness is as unalienable as the pursuit of happiness. Yet some people, research suggests, may be more prone to feeling awe. People who are uncomfortable changing their perception of the way the world works may be less able to experience awe. To experience the truly awesome is to be overwhelmed, to be thrown off balance by something that simply does not fit the mold.

You are unlikely to experience awe if you have convinced yourself that you have seen it all, been there and done that. You will not respond with awe if you are just not all that interested in the unexpected because you are so certain that you know all that there is.

My New Year’s resolution is make myself more awe-prone. This year, I must remind myself to be unset in my ways and to venture beyond the safe borders of balance.

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And How Are We Today, Dear?

Getting more exercise and not smoking may increase your lifespan, but it may be that having positive perceptions of aging is more important to longevity. According to research by Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, people who hold positive perceptions about growing older lived an average of 7.5 years longer.

The way we talk to old people can be harmful. Some people feel it is appropriate to address an old person as “dear” or “sweetie.” Some people speak as though the old person, just by being old, can no longer comprehend normal speech. This manner of talking to old people has been called “elderspeak.”

Karen Austen, a graduate student in Aging Studies at Wichita State University, has published a more comprehensive description of elderspeak. She writes that elderspeak “communicates a condescending attitude.” It assumes that old people are dependent, frail, weak, incapable and incompetent. Some characteristics of elderspeak are:

  • Speaking to old people more slowly or more loudly
  • Speaking in a sing-song voice
  • Using the pronoun “we” instead of “you” (“How are we doing today?”)
  • Using shorter sentences and simpler words
  • Using inappropriately intimate terms of endearment

Language laced with sweet little insults belittles old people and can shape an old person’s perceptions about aging. As Dr. Levy says: “Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging, and those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.”

Dr. Levy’s research shows that people who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The negative effects of elderspeak may include impaired memory and balance and higher levels of stress. “We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” says Dr. Levy.

In another study, Elderspeak Communication: Impact on Dementia Care, Dr. Kristine Williams found that the use of elderspeak by nursing staff in long term care facilities could result in communication breakdown and could trigger problem behaviors such as aggression and vocal outbursts. Elderspeak conveys an implied message that old people are less competent than younger adults. It is no surprise that some old people recoil, feeling a loss of self-esteem, becoming depressed, becoming withdrawn or succumbing to premature dependency.

Negative messages about aging abound in our society. Being old is being “over-the-hill” and “past-one’s-prime.” At my age, I am not far from becoming an “old fogey” or a “codger.” These words do not lose their pernicious effect by being spoken light-heartedly. Indeed, I would not want to lose my sense of humor about becoming older and facing my “declining years.” Humor serves as a defense. The point is that a defense is needed in a society that seems to have so little positive to say about growing old.

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