Nobody likes getting old. Yet the older you get the better you may feel. This is not some chirpy elder slogan, but a fact confirmed by scientific research.
While our bodies deteriorate as we get older, our minds improve. They don’t get sharper, sorry – but one’s mood often becomes more upbeat. Studies show that age brings more positive emotions and fewer negative feelings.
Aging and acceptance
Why do emotions like anger and anxiety tend to lessen with age? Social scientists attribute it to the practice of acceptance. While younger people fret about not knowing what will happen next in life, older people can be more accepting of whatever life brings.
Perhaps the most widely cited praise of acceptance is this so-called Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
Accepting what cannot be changed is believed to help you move forward through life’s challenges. Accepting the inevitable can help you get unstuck. Hence it is a key element of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step rehab programs.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive study that proves the value of acceptance as we age – not yet. Further research was the recommendation of a comprehensive overview of research to date into the relationship between age and acceptance, published five years ago in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Now may be a good point to clarify what is meant by acceptance in relation to aging. Acceptance is an active process that enhances emotional awareness and understanding.
“Acceptance is defined as the process of deliberately and non-judgmentally engaging with negative emotions.”
There is a difference between acceptance and resignation. Accepting the inevitability of aging and the fact that it affects everyone, including yourself – this is not the same as being unhappily resigned to aging.
While acceptance can help lessen anger and anxiety, other negative emotions apparently increase over the years. Age often brings more sadness, which is understandable given that longevity usually means outliving loved ones. Since older people experience more sad events, they may have learned that the best way to respond is with acceptance. Accepting what has happened can help them to mourn, and to eventually move on with the last chapter of their own lives.
Acceptance “of uncertainty, unpredictability, and impermanence, and the negative emotions that often accompany these experiences” has been identified as a key component of wisdom. As more research is conducted into acceptance and aging it may also be worth investigating that old cliché about being old and wise, and the role played by practising acceptance.
The paradox of acceptance
The link between acceptance and aging is certainly a paradox. At first it seems counter-intuitive for acceptance of negative circumstances to lead to a more positive outlook. It begins to make more sense when you consider this research finding: acceptance can reduce the practice of excessive rumination.
Too much thinking about your problems is no good, according to Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel. Their research linked excessive rumination to that dreaded condition that limits longevity: short telomeres. The shortening of these markers at the end of chromosomes has been proven to be a sign of decreased lifespan.
One of the many advantages of practising acceptance is that this habit can be cultivated throughout life. So the older you get, the better you become at dealing with whatever happens to you.
What to accept
So what kinds of things do older people need to accept? Firstly, the inescapable fact of aging and what it does to one’s appearance and abilities. Even more importantly, to understand the ways that aging affects the sense of self.
There is more advice on accepting the changes of aging, involving more A-words. Adaptation. Accommodation. Attitude.
We are advised to accept aging as a part of life, not an affliction or disease to fight. Acceptance of aging as natural can make it less stressful to adapt to the changes in the final part of our life cycle.
There is ample advice on what to do in order to cultivate an accepting attitude towards aging. But are there any things to avoid? The answer brings yet more A-words. Attachment is a practice that Buddhists often counsel against. Aversion is also to be avoided. So in accepting aging they recommend trying to counter one’s attachment to youth or aversion to old age.
Acceptance is liberating
Acceptance of aging can lead to concrete actions to change society’s perceptions around it. The segregation of the elderly from the rest of our communities is increasingly being challenged. More interaction is being encouraged across generations.
Achieving acceptance can be liberating. Once we accept getting older we can stop fearing it. Only then can we begin to see its valuable contribution to the entirety of our lives.
If you want a How To guide on accepting your own aging, try this Wiki-How: How to Accept That You’re Getting Older