There I stood, surrounded by people from my neighborhood at a cocktail party—our common purpose to celebrate the pristine park that lines the shores of the Long Island Sound steps away from where we live. Typically, I’d look to connect with people I know, or perhaps have met through a friend—in other words, I take the comfortable and easy route. But this time, I opted for a different experience.
Taking in the setting sun and a warm autumn breeze, I noticed an older couple in their mid-70s standing on their own amidst the chattering younger crowd. Sensing a social divide, I walked up to them and introduced myself, and in minutes found myself deeply engaged in interesting conversation. This couple and I quickly delved into discussion of the current pressures surrounding high school kids, and then of the pros and cons of empty-nest life in the suburbs versus the city—after 40 years of suburban living, this semi-retired mathematics professor still commutes by train to his work at a metropolitan university. Walking home at the end of the evening, I recounted the conversation to my husband and felt grateful for having chosen to extend myself beyond the familiar and into the realm of the older and more experienced.
Typically, I’d look to connect with people I know, or perhaps have met through a friend—in other words, I take the comfortable and easy route. But this time, I opted for a different experience.
As our nation ages—by 2050 the U.S. population aged 65 and older is projected to be nearly double that in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—we will all be having greater contact with the elderly. So how can we look at the aging population more mindfully, focusing not on their wrinkled skin and inability to move in line at a quicker pace, but rather on the life lessons and character strengths that they may be willing to share if we consider a more open and mindful approach?
Here are a few things we can learn from mindfully relating to those older than us:
1) Recalibrate What’s Meaningful
People who have lived for seven or more decades have that much more life experience to share. After meeting a charming 86-year-old man in my community named Max, I was struck by his resilience and positive attitude despite great challenges. Max makes daily visits to his 97-year-old wife, June, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home; he is a child survivor of the Holocaust; made a mid-life career switch from accountant to chemist; and he and his wife were unable to have children. In spite of, and perhaps because of, his struggles, Max still expresses gratitude and considers himself fortunate. Max told me how he feeds his wife lunch during his daily visits, and that in the afternoons he goes through his mail and watches TV. I feel inspired by his strength and ability to move through adversity with such a positive attitude. Actively listening to older people’s life stories and experiences can result in valuable reminders of what is important and meaningful in our own lives.
2) Appreciate Tried and True Wisdom
My aunt Yvonne, 87, is my go-to person when I’m in need of wise words. After a difficult discussion with my brother about our mom’s state of affairs, Yvonne listened to my frustration and pointed me in a sound direction, simultaneously emphasizing the importance of family relationships. Her advice to bring in an outside, objective advisor was not only helpful, but also reinforced our bond. Before hanging up, she ended our chat saying, “Hearing your voice makes me feel so connected.” She always thanks me for calling her, and I, too, feel so grateful to have her and her wisdom.
Being old is much better than you think it will be; and happiness is a choice, not a condition.
Making the time and effort to talk with elders is an opportunity to learn and gain insight into a wide variety of topics, from relationships and parenting to careers and aging well. For his Legacy Project, professor Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed over 1,000 people—age 70 and up—and found so many significant pieces of advice that he condensed them into a book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Among the best kept lessons found in Pillemer’s book: Being old is much better than you think it will be; and happiness is a choice, not a condition.
3) Nourish Emotional and Mental Well-being
During early and mid-life, connecting socially through family, work and community happens naturally. And while socializing has proven to bring us greater happiness, we don’t necessarily think about its cognitive benefits. For older people, it turns out that having social networks can make them more than simply happy. The results of a 15-year study from Sweden’s Karolinska Insistutet show that engaging with others, which provides emotional and mental stimulation, can actually lower the risk of cognitive decline.
Even a 10-minute conversation with another person can be beneficial for boosting memory, according to a recent University of Michigan study. The research found that just a short, friendly conversation also helped stimulate participants’ ability to perform problem-solving skills. So next time you see an older person, sit down and have a chat, knowing you’ll be doing more good than just being friendly.
4) Learn What Makes You Truly Happy
It’s a well-known fact that people decline cognitively and physically as they age. But an important and newly discovered benefit of aging is that the older we get, the happier we tend to be. In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers interviewed over 1,500 people between the ages of 21 and 99 and the results showed that old age is linked to greater happiness and wellbeing, higher levels of overall fulfillment, and lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. The older the person, reported the study, the better his or her mental health.
Relieved of the pressures of education, career, family and finances that weigh heavily in younger years, older people find it easier to let go of life’s smaller stressors and take pleasure in its simpler pleasures.
Why? Relieved of the pressures of education, career, family and finances that weigh heavily in younger years, older people find it easier to let go of life’s smaller stressors and take pleasure in its simpler pleasures. So the next time you find yourself talking with someone elderly, you may want to ask them about the ways they find happiness, and take notes for the future.
5) Add Meaning to Your Life
Helping an older person in need cross the street. Asking someone if you can carry her shopping bag. Inviting an older neighbor for a cup of tea. These small acts of kindness are not only significant for the recipient, but can also bring you an increased sense of pleasure and satisfaction.
In a preliminary study whose results were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researcher Daryl Van Rongeren and his colleagues found that people who engaged in altruistic behaviors reported feeling a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
And if that’s not enough to entice you, recent neuroscience research shows that when we volunteer to help others, regions of the brain show heightened activity—indicating pleasure and reward—as they do when we eat chocolate or have sex. That’s the sort of kindness everyone can benefit from.