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As the first month of 2018 draws to a close, I’m filled with wonder (and perhaps a healthy dose of angst) at what the year ahead has to bring. Life tumbles on. We settle into the rhythm of our days. Time keeps unfolding, despite our efforts to slow it down. What is the mindset that I need to cultivate in these fresh new months that lay before me?
This past New Year’s Day, I awoke early in the morning, troubled by a strange thought. While my heart was filled with gratitude for the chance to embark on another year of life ahead, my brain reminded me that later this year, I would turn 44 years old.
By most people’s standards, 44 is neither old nor young. It’s not the sort of milestone that should evoke a mid-life crisis. But I was rattled nonetheless. Basic science tells me, it’s only a matter of time before my mind and body would start to regress with age. Pretty soon those long outdoor runs and bicycle rides I so enjoy will become more difficult. That music project I’ve always wanted to get off the ground was looking less likely. Where will I get the energy? That zest for life I pride myself on would surely become less…zesty, over time.
These thoughts reminded me of a research experiment conducted by Harvard psychology professor, Ellen Langer, in the early 1980’s. It involved two groups of men in their 70s and 80s who were transported more than 20 years back in time while staying at an isolated retreat in New Hampshire. Over the course of five days, the subjects were completely immersed in a world of yesteryear, surrounded by mementos from the 1950s—vintage radio, black and white television shows, issues of Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, portraits of their younger selves. One group was told to simply reminisce about those old times. The other group, on a separate stay, was invited to literally pretend they were living in an earlier time period. Each group was subjected to a battery of cognitive and physical tests before and after their stay.
What did Langer find? After just one week, both groups of men experienced dramatic physiological changes. They showed greater dexterity, agility, and strength. Their hearing and vision improved. They scored better on intelligence tests. And those who had immersed themselves in their youth more completely revealed bodies that were, literally, younger.
The Langer study gives me a new outlook on this run-up to my next year of life. It illustrates the power of the human mind to rejuvenate, heal, and maybe even, dial back our aging process a little. While aging is something that will inevitably come with the progression of time, I’m heartened by an ever-increasing body of research that shows how our minds and bodies can be transformed by how we view and interact with the world. Instead of succumbing to the “I’m just getting older” mindset, I’m going to dwell on all the ways I feel young and alive. If nothing else, I hope it will preserve my zest for life.
January 29, 2018