Successful aging is an idea focused on empowering people to positively influence their experience of aging. Originating in the 1950s, successful aging now refers to a broad array of disciplines designed to improve our physical, mental, and social wellbeing across our entire lifespan. What is the nature of this success and how can we improve our experience of aging?
What is Success?
Success in life is a serious matter; it is also a deeply personal matter shaped by the relentless trajectory of aging.
The essence of the word “success” means to flourish, thrive, and prosper. With respect to aging, success is closely related to living a vibrant, fulfilling life that creates positive value in both a personal and collective sense. In an ideal sense, successful aging is a mode of learning focused on the care of our physical, mental, and social wellbeing so that our experience of life can flourish, thrive, and prosper across our entire lifetime.
To understand successful aging we must reclaim and revive the word “success,” and acknowledge that the pursuit of material wealth beyond the basic requirements of living is a debasement of success.
Banal notions of success are commonly aligned with materialism, consumption, commoditization, commercialism, corporatism, and environmental degradation. The capitalist approach to success reveals a ferocious addiction to greed coupled with the insanity of competitive mass-destruction; this is the antithesis of success.
Authentic success is nurturing, creative, and generative; it is never competitive, divisive, or destructive.
Successful aging inevitably restores our sense of presence in the natural world. The simple presence of a flower, for example, inspires the idea of flourishing and imbues the feeling of life with a vitality, belonging, reverence, rapture, and beauty.
Success is ultimately a matter of the heart.
A Courageous Recognition
Aging defines our relationship with time, change, and impermanence.
Our body changes as we grow older, which in turn means that we must adapt to the various age-related challenges that emerge into our life. There is never single moment in life, at any age, that our body is not experiencing change.
Aging is a form of constant internal motion. The human body is the very expression of age-related change. During the second half of life, the progression of age-related change begins to reveal our innate vulnerabilities. New challenges begin to emerge into the midst of our lives.
The ways in which we creatively adapt to these inevitable challenges is crucial to the quality we experience in life.
Successful aging also means the courageous recognition that we cannot surmount every challenge and return to life as it once was. Age-related challenges can thrust us through a point of not return making the retrieval of a past lifestyle impossible.
Indeed, our inner pain and suffering is exponentially increased by resisting forms of change that are inevitable.
In this sense, successful aging is not a battle to eliminate the cause of our hardships; successful aging is the courageous and creative adaptation to changes in our life we are irrevocably required to experience.
Successful Aging is the Summit of Lifelong Learning
The practical purpose of successful aging is to flourish, thrive, and prosper in the midst of age-related changes that lie beyond our control.
In an important sense, successful aging is a potent form of lifelong learning. Learning the discipline of successful aging hinges on our ability to work with the sometimes painful intimacy of our vulnerabilities and frailties in order to increase our capacity for vitality, resilience, and equanimity.
Sometimes the difficulties we experience in life will force us to permanently alter, adapt, and evolve what we personally mean by success. This difficulty can take the form of an accident, injury, disease, or tragic event. In this sense, successful aging is a form of conversation and negotiation with the tempestuous forces of life that can alter our course in life.
Successful aging is profoundly personal and self-directed; it is irrevocably connected to the unique patterns, events, context, situations, and circumstances of our own life. In other words, the endeavour to age successfully is a heroic journey of mythological proportions.
In an important sense, aging is a learning environment; the experience of aging is our classroom, our instructor, and our curriculum. However, our experience of aging is also emergent and cannot be conveniently predetermined. Successful aging is a narrative of self-directed learning, creativity, adaptation, improvisation, and bricolage.
The Elements of Successful Aging
Aging is fundamentally intergenerational. That is to say, the principles of successful aging are, in a certain sense, ageless. However, we must also recognize that ideas about successful aging originated in reference to the latter stages of life.
The elements of successful aging are commonly organized around three broad categories of experience:
- Physical Health including freedom from disability and disease, maintenance of optimal health relative to age, mobility and independence, and adaptation to the increasing levels of physical adaptation to normal aging.
- Mental and Emotional wellbeing including freedom from depression and mental illness, stress-reduction, the preservation of attention and awareness, and the capacity for equanimity in the presence of adversity.
- Social Adaptation and Interaction including meaningful participation in society and making valued contributions to the lives of others.
Two powerful sources of successful aging that I would add to this list are environmental stewardship and spiritual endeavour:
- Environment Stewardship includes nature as a source of healing and consolation, the preservation and care of the earth, and the natural world as a source of inspiration and motivation.
- Spiritual Endeavour includes forging a relationship with the great mystery, care of the soul, and broadening and expanding our capacity for belonging, reverence, and gratitude.
All five categories above are merely placeholders to subjective experience. Each one of us will navigate them in unique and personal ways. In the end, successful aging is a uniquely personal journey that hinges on our capacity for authentic learning in the face of real life situations and circumstances – at any age.
The Spirit of Successful Aging
Life teaches us how to survive, while death teaches us how to live. Life is a taskmaster, while death is a master teacher. We cannot learn how to appreciate the preciousness of life without coming to grips with the reality of death. When people spend so much time in trivial and self-destructive activities, it is often because they have denied the reality of personal mortality.
– Paul Wong in The Meaning of Life and Meaning of Death in Successful Aging
Successful aging does not mean that we never experience adversity in our life. It is useful to remind ourselves that successful aging is not:
- the maintenance of perfect health;
- the absence of disease;
- the avoidance of pain and suffering;
- the elimination of frailty and vulnerability;
- the avoidance of the inevitables in life;
- the desire to live as long as possible as an end unto itself.
Of course, we need to take care of our health; good health enhances our quality of life. At the same time, we cannot reasonably expect to live without some degree of adversity in our life.
The normal course of aging will inevitably present challenges and difficulties that we must learn to accept”, negotiate, and integrate into our course of life.
When we embrace aging as a deeply authentic creative process we focus on learning to work with the challenges of our own unique experience of aging by expanding and broadening our capacity for acceptance, awareness, vitality, adaptation, compassion, empathy, belonging, understanding, resilience, beauty, gratitude, artistry, and wisdom.
Successful aging inspires us to establish a position of resilience in the face of vulnerability.
Ultimately, successful aging is a mode of deep interior learning that inspires a positive creative adaptation to our own unique circumstances in life.