Five keys to successful aging

Follow the path to longevity

The American writer Grace Paley writes of a moment when her aging father sat her down to “teach me how to grow old.” Once she got over her initial resistance, she listened as he told her, “Please sit down… Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. Do this every morning.” She mistook it for a metaphor but he was being quite literal. 

“In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much,” he began. “Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart [and] talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. No one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart and [tell it] anything, but be respectful. Maybe say, 'Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job... You can whisper also, ‘Remember, remember.’”

In the winding memoir that also advises about regrets and other matters, she goes on to give examples of what he said to his heart. These include remembrances of stressful situations. He explains that it’s “good for the old heart—to get excited—just as good as for the person.” 

It’s unconventional advice on "how to grow old" that also seems intuitively practical. As we age, we gain a deeper understanding of the value of slowing down and listening to what our bodies have to tell us. Why not talk to them, directly, more mindfully?

The rest of this little advice collection is not all so personal. Nor is this meant to be a comprehensive gathering of wisdom about increasing longevity or aging successfully. Tomes have been written on that subject (see Dan Levitin’s Successful Aging, quoted below). We simply want to offer some of the sagest advice we’ve met up with in recent years. 

Here are five favourite quotes about aging we hope will inspire and enlighten:

Louis Cozolino on social engagement

In his 2018 treatise, Timeless, Cozolino looks at the way nurturing relationships can foster improved brain health, backed by science. His book focuses on the importance of a healthy social life as we age—not only maintaining one but applying life experience to constantly relate better to those around us. In one of the book’s introductory chapters he puts this pithily:

A core component of ongoing health and longevity lies in the power of sustained intimacy, attachment and learning. It’s the power of being with others and staying engaged in taking on the challenges of life that builds, shapes, and sustains our brains…. [Maintaining] our relationships  and [staying] connected to others are vital aspects of our continued health and longevity.

Sherwin B. Nuland on remaining attuned to ourselves 

Nuland’s The Art of Aging remains a standard in discussing how to age well, perhaps most notably for its mix of research and personal testimony. “I’m taking the journey even while I describe it,” he writes. The combination makes for an engaging, sometimes lyrical read that benefits from his personal stake in the subject matter. Here he waxes eloquent about the value of what he calls a personal attunement.

We elders are no longer at a stage where things will care for themselves; nothing can now be taken for granted. We have arrived at a time and place in our lives where we [must be] attuned to ourselves in ways that are new to us and sometimes burdensome. This requires attention, reflection, and action, not only in regard to ourselves but in regard to the world around us as well. In these ways, we older men and women must all become philosophers. 

Carol S. Dweck on the growth mindset

Dweck is a leader in the field of motivation, and her own life is a reflection of her work. She’s currently 75 and still working (and growing, we’re sure she’ll say). Her most influential work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, was published when she was 60. It’s the book that gave the world the phrase “growth mindset.” Through her work, readers can explore how to overcome a fixed mindset—a belief that abilities are fixed—with this growth mindset, a belief that abilities can be developed, no matter what your age or anything else.

It’s summarized in the quote below:

There’s another mindset in which [your personal] traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

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Daniel J. Levitin on the centrality of conscientiousness

Daniel J. Levitin is a McGill University professor, writer, musician, and record producer who's written noteworthy books like This Is Your Brain on Music and The Organized Mind. His 2020 volume Successful Aging, is a wide-ranging look at the subject, featuring cutting-edge insights from developmental neuroscience and individual differences psychology. It effectively proves that there is such a thing as successful aging and he provides signposts throughout its 400 pages as to how people can do that.

He highlights the importance of mindfulness and openness in one of the book’s succinct summaries:

The single most important factor in determining successful aging is the personality trait of conscientiousness, associated with a great number of positive outcomes in life. The fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology are founded on the premise that [you can] be more conscientious, even later in life, and the benefits will still accrue to you. The latest science confirms what has been argued for millenia, by various forms of religionthat personality is malleable, and that one can learn to interact with the world in new ways, even well into one’s eighties and beyond.

Annie Dillard on why we're here

In Annie Dillard's classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes about her connection to the natural world near her home, reminding us all that we can all access big ideas, every day. She's also has written unflinchingly about aging, what it means to grow—and to falter. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, quoted below, she reminds us that no matter what age we are and where we're at, we have a role to play, one that doesn’t change with time.

We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

~ Jim Huinink, with Glen Herbert

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