I must have woken up in a rare mood of sentimentality on September 23, because when I got in my car and heard the first droning, synth-y chords of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” something strange happened in my chest. It wasn’t sadness or despair, but it wasn’t particularly positive (though I can’t say I often feel enthusiastic about this song or the band I now know to be Alphaville). I knew it would be stuck in my head all day if I let it play—and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to change the radio station.
This was the day before my 24th (golden) birthday, which to many people might serve as an explanation for unidentifiable negative emotions. After all, who wants to listen to a song about eternal youth on repeat on the eve of a birthday?!
Oh, apparently I do. When I got to work I played the song at least a dozen times, trying to find the source of my melancholy.
This whole sensation was odd for a number of reasons:
- I’ve always loved birthdays, and I was looking forward to that most recent one.
- I don’t feel old.
- I don’t intend to ever feel old.
- Unlike Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which I believe has a vastly different interpretation of what it means to be young, Alphaville’s song is really. just. not. good.
As I listened to the clumsily worded lyrics, the syllables mismatched to the rhythmic emphasis of the song, I thought what I often think about age and our culture’s youth obsession: why? I’m fortunate enough to have a diverse set of friends ranging in age from 24 to 80-something, and many of them have one thing in common: they either fear or detest (sometimes both) growing “old.” This comes across when they say things to me like “This growing old thing is not for the faint of heart,” or “Don’t ask me to remember that; I’m old and I’ll forget.”
Here’s the deal: Cary Grant spoke the truest words about youth, age, and the concept of being “old” long ago. Nothing has ever come close since then, and nothing will.
The only people who grow old were born old to begin with. You were born young. You’ll stay that way.
Did you catch that? Read it again. No, seriously. Do it. Cary Grant said that in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). It’s a great movie. Go see it. Especially now that it’s almost Christmas time, because it’s a Christmas movie.
Yes, there are old people in the world. I don’t know them or spend much time around them, because ugh. I have little patience for the idea that age in itself is a barrier to things. So often I hear things like, “Oh, I couldn’t wear a streak of turquoise through my hair like you. I’m far too old to pull that off.”
Listen: age is a number, not an excuse to be self-deprecating.
I understand that some limitations, like physical health issues, do come with age. But how much of that is more psychological than we realize? A recent article in The New York Times called “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” confirms what I’ve long thought about the concept of feeling “old”: It’s all in your head.
My understanding from friends is that while their numeric age may be 63, they think of themselves as 50-something, or even somewhere in their 40s. They say things like, “How did I get to be 63? What happened to the last 20 years? I was just 44 yesterday!” My female friends tell me that they look in the mirror and expect to see their 40-year-old selves, but instead they see their mothers or their grandmothers staring back at them. (Some of us should be so lucky! Love you, mom.)
The New York Times article highlights the work of Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard. She conducted studies on brain age vs. body age by immersing aging individuals in anachronistic settings and looking at their physical health and well-being before and after the immersion. She would put a small group of people in their 70s in living quarters that had been made to look like an era 20 years earlier, and tell them to act like their 20-years-younger selves.
After several of these studies, she determined that “rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.” Yep, their physical ailments improved dramatically when they trained themselves (even for a week or so) to believe they were a couple decades younger. When they were empowered to take more responsibility for their well-being, take a few risks, and behave like their younger selves, they showed marked improvements in happiness, energy levels, and performance.
The article describes several more of Langer’s studies, each more fascinating than the last, and nearly all pointing to a positive placebo effect that comes from perceiving oneself as younger or ignoring age altogether. From the article: “If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them, Langer says, they would fulfill their potential and improve their health.” Age may not be a choice, but being or feeling “old” is. If that sounds like a simple placebo effect, that’s because it is—”mind over matter” seems to stand true far more than we realize.
Langer even suspects the power of positive thought may affect common physical ailments. As a result of one of her studies, she says there may be a “psychological cure for diabetes” in the near future. And next spring, she plans to test a hypothesis that cancer patients may be able to shrink the size of their tumors by running an experiment on women with stage 4 breast cancer.
“The experimental group will live for a week in surroundings that evoke 2003, a date when all the women were healthy and hopeful, living without a mortal threat hanging over them. They will be told to try to inhabit their former selves. Few clues of the present day will be visible inside the resorts or, for that matter, outside them. The other group at San Miguel will have the support of fellow cancer patients but will not live in the past; a third group will not experience any research intervention.”
In Sweet Adelines, the international organization of female a cappella singers that I belong to, cancer is a common threat. When I attended our International Convention and Competition recently, some time was devoted during the festivities to honoring those we have lost in the past year to cancer. The poignant tribute hit us all hard, as we have lost internationally renowned coaches and faculty members who have worked with choruses and quartets all over the world.
Singing together creates an iron bond, and we care for one another like family. Singing also changes your brain, releasing endorphins and relieving stress and anxiety. In other words, singing keeps you young. It’s been scientifically proven, and it’s been demonstrated to me in person. I’m terrible at guessing people’s ages, because I’m used to being around women who are in the process of extending their lifespan by decades through song.
So why are these women the ones who say things like, “Oh, I’ll never remember that—I’m old; I can’t retain anything!” Why don’t these women buy in to the idea that age is merely a number; that they have control over how youthful they feel; and that they are likely far more physically and mentally able than they give themselves credit for being?
Well, it could be that society doesn’t allow for so much self-esteem in women.
A statistic in More magazine reads, “85+: The age at which women are happiest with their looks, according to a recent Gallup poll. After dipping a bit in the thirties and forties, women’s beauty confidence soars almost nonstop from 49 onward.”
This from a magazine filled to the brim with anti-wrinkle serum promotions, gray root touch-up tricks, tips on carrying one’s style from one decade to the next, and myriad advertisements for products that make every aspect of menopause sound like descending into the fifth level of hell.
Did I mention the magazine is geared toward 30-50-year-old women? It’s no wonder women under 50 are feeling like shit about themselves; women over 50 have probably stopped reading trash like this, and are therefore learning to appreciate themselves on their own merits, rather than those of society touted by magazines we can’t afford that only tease us with products we can’t afford.
Your skin will wrinkle. Your hair color will turn. You might need new glasses. These are things that come with aging, and the process of adjusting to such things may be a difficult one. Psychotherapy can help—which is further proof that you CAN have psychological control over the things you think are symptoms of “growing old.” You can have control over your perception of them, at least, and as Ellen Langer is demonstrating, that’s pretty much the same thing.
Wrinkles, gray hair, and worsening eyesight may be symptoms of aging, but they are not symptoms of “growing old.” The only symptoms of growing old are your own determination not to age, your resistance to change, and the fear, criticism, and disdain you feel for the natural symptoms of aging.
The antidotes to growing old, as evidenced by the most youthful people in my life:
- graceful acceptance of transitions
- a fervor for new experiences
- a song in your heart (one that isn’t “Forever Young” by Alphaville).
My dad would add that it doesn’t hurt to get on a bike every once in a while, too.
I leave you with this performance I heard live last week by a quartet that ended up winning the Sweet Adeline International quartet competition to become our 2015 Queens of Harmony (yes, they wear crowns). Video should autoplay at 10:15, but if it doesn’t, the whole performance is worth watching.