Ageing with Positivity and Mindfulness by Grace Deathridge
I recently had the good fortune of reaching the milestone age of 40 and although this is still a relatively young age (if you were to ask a ninety year old) the age I’ve turned has placed me, in western terms, either in or close to the middle age category.
Keen to embrace this new era also known as ‘Middle adulthood’, which sometimes has negative connotations, I set out to find inspiration on the subject of ageing. I researched and wrote an article looking at people’s responses to reaching birthday milestones like my own and I also sought out others approaching age from a positive outlook. This led me to meet Guy Robertson of Positive Ageing (Personal Development) in Bristol, U.K.
Positive Ageing run regular courses for people to explore and evaluate their own responses to ageing. The courses are aimed at people typically between 50 – 70 who are on the approach to mature adulthood and is facilitated by three professionals with a combined background in Policy Work on Ageing, Hypnotherapy, NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming), Life Coaching and Social Work.
Positive Ageing’s courses help people identify their own beliefs regarding ageing, examine possible origins of these beliefs (societal or family) and identify if it is helpful for them to hold on to or let go of these beliefs. After this exploration participants are invited to learn various techniques for personal change processes, including NLP, Positive Psychology techniques and Mindfulness Meditation.
When I met with Guy Robertson he was very earnest about the benefits of Positive Ageing’s work, and was also very keen to point out their goal is to have a positive effect on people’s ageing process, assisting participants to adopt helpful approaches rather than for them to deny some of the harsher realities and challenges of ageing. Above all, they want participants to face ageing head-on. To embrace it rather than resist it.
“Getting older has a very ‘bad press’, and most people would rather not think about ageing. We believe that we can benefit by doing the opposite – by facing up to the reality of our ageing. By doing this we can begin to see the new possibilities that this phase in our life can bring.”
Guy was very knowledgeable in the field of Positive or Successful Ageing research and described various experiments into ageing that have been carried out, which have inspired him to work in this area. I found all his examples fascinating and awe-inspiring and the one that particularly got me excited was the work of Professor Ellen J Langer.
Ellen Langer is an award-winning Professor of psychology at Harvard University and has been working in Psychology for over thirty years now. In this time she has carried out some revolutionary research to do with ageing, focusing on the nature of the link between the non-material mind and the material body. Her earlier research experiments took place at the beginning of what was later termed the “New Age” movement and well before mind/body studies were conducted in laboratories.
In the 1970s she and a colleague (Judith Rodin} conducted an experiment with nursing home residents where they encouraged participants to find ways to make more decisions for themselves and were also given the opportunity to choose a house-plant to care for. The aim was to give the nursing home residents more choices and responsibility, which would help them engage with the world and thus live their lives more fully. A second, control group received no such instructions to make their own decisions and they were given house-plants which the nursing staff would care for. 18 months later, the members of the first group were shown to be more cheerful, active, and alert. They were also much healthier, so much so, that there was a surprising and dramatic result – less than half as many of the more engaged group had died than had those in the control group.
Initially the psychologists saw the results as indicative of the power of making choices and the increased personal control this gives. Subsequently, Professor Langer realized that making choices results in mindfulness and became convinced that a non-dualist view of the mind and the body could be more useful than the current popularly held perspective that the mind and body operate separately.
This resulted in her view that if the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well. She dared to believe that we could change our physical health by changing our minds.
Her most famous experiment explored the link between mind and body even further. In 1979, Professor Langer was investigating the extent to which ageing is a product of our state of mind. To find out, she and her students devised a study called the “Counter-clockwise study”. It involved taking 2 groups of elderly men in their late 70s or 80s and taking them on retreat for a week.
On retreat the first group, the control, remained in a 1979 environment but would be reminiscing about life in the 1950s, whereas the other half would be transported to the fifties. The second group were placed in a house surrounded by props and decor from 1959 and were encouraged to watch Fifties’ films and debate Fifties’ news topics. They were asked to discuss these fifties events in the present tense and act as if it were actually 1959.
The question the experiment was trying to answer was, if these men’s minds were taken back 20 years to when they were younger, would their bodies reflect this change and become younger? The results of the experiment gave the resounding and astounding answer – yes! Prof Langer took physiological measurements before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory all significantly improved. Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.
“Everybody knows in some way that our minds affect our physical being, but I don’t think people are aware of just how profound the effect actually is,” Professor Langer says.
Ellen Langer’s insights drawn from these ground-breaking experiments led her to continue her research into the relationship between the mind and body, in particular exploring the idea of ‘mindfulness’ being key to our wellbeing. Through these studies she has come to question whether medical knowledge about ageing, diagnosis and the natural course of diseases, is necessarily true.
As demonstrated in the Counter-clockwise study, by taking the mind to a place where it feels young, we can experience more youth, in body and spirit. Various other research has shown that optimists live longer.
A recent study showed that upbeat people with a positive attitude to ageing live on average seven and a half years longer than more negative thinkers. That’s a lot of years extra when you consider that exercising regularly or not smoking is only proven to lengthen your life by 1-3 years.
“Your views of your own ageing are going to largely determine how you age. If you view yourself as someone who’s going to fall apart – you will fall apart. You will probably live just as long as you think your supposed to live. We have enormous control over our health and wellbeing that we’re only beginning to become aware of “ Ellen Langer.
With our belief’s being so crucial, I think Positive Ageing’s courses, where students uncover their beliefs and learn to change them must be a valuable and empowering process. For those of us unable to find such excellent local education, or perhaps feeling we are a bit to young to be thinking about ageing at present, perhaps we will take inspiration and open our minds to – well – the possibilities afforded by the wonderful minds we have. Maybe by shifting our thinking, our language, our expectations and bringing more mindfulness to our day-to-day activities we can bring more vitality to our lives – whatever our age.
‘You’re never too old to become younger’ – Mae West.
Positive Ageing are on twitter: Positive Ageing@PositiveAgeing1
Interesting videos on Positive Ageing: http://positiveageing.org.uk/videos/
Ellen J Langer has written a book on her Counter-clockwise study called ‘Counter-clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility’ http://www.amazon.com/Counterclockwise-Mindful-Health-Power-Possibility/dp/0345502043
Photo Credit above: Happiness by Marg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Tags: positive aging