In American culture, getting older is about as desirable as being burned alive like a Salem “witch”.
Nobody wants to do it, yet we assume it’s inevitable. But what if decline and decrepitude AREN’T inevitable, and are instead a product of our cultural beliefs about the aging process?
In 1981, Ellen Langer, a brilliant Harvard psychologist, led an experiment that should have changed the way everyone looks at aging. This experiment was so absolutely mind-blowing, it should have revolutionized our culture’s approach to the latter years. Sadly, it didn’t — largely because no one really knows about it.
The experiment was this: she took a group of eight men in their 70s and sent them back in time (for all intents and purposes, anyway). For five days, they were told to act, think, speak and pretend like it was 22 years earlier, and that they were 22 years younger. They listened to music from 1961, watched movies from 1961 — talked about current events from 1961.
When they arrived, they were tested on various markers of aging — sight, physiological measures, etc.
At the end of the experiment, when re-tested: “They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger.”
The implications of this are absolutely staggering. Health, illness, aging — the physical conditions of our bodies are tied irrevocably to our state of mind.
Decades later, it seems, people are starting to pay attention. The New York Times published a fantastic article this week (with the best pictures EVER, btw) entitled “What If Age Is Nothing But a Mindset?” Langer continues to do her work — all of it just as jaw-dropping as this. She’s debunking myths and legitimizing something mystics have known for thousands of years: the mind is all-powerful. Currently, she’s getting ready to embark on a groundbreaking study with cancer patients, duplicating many of the conditions of her 1981 endeavor.
The mind the key to our happiness, our health — our very experience on this planet. When we stop buying into society’s expectations, when we throw off stereotypes and stand firm in our own beliefs, we have the power to change more than we know. Too often, we trade our personal power for the comfortable rigidity of societal expectations. Aging is all in our heads, but we have to own our part in the process.
To live long, happy lives, we have to live them OUR WAY, not captive to cultural norms, but free in our own magnificence — acting and thinking and evolving by self-imposed standards. So next time someone tells you that 40-somethings don’t do this, or 60-somethings don’t eat that or 80-somethings don’t wear that, DON’T LISTEN. Do whatever you damn well please, at whatever age you happen to be.
If anything, this experiment (and Langer’s other work) shows that anything is possible. We’ve barely begun to understand the vast frontier that is the human mind. The future looks bright, young and happy.