What is the secret? Good genes? Good luck? Magic? Nope. Not really. The truth is both simple and a little complicated. Simple because the keys are available to each and every one of us; complicated because remembering to use those keys all the time can be tricky.
A common thread
In his research, life coach and wellness expert Marcus Pearce looked closely at the lives of people who had reached a wonderful old age and found common threads running through their stories. No matter their circumstances, it was their underlying values, behaviours and attitudes that made all the difference – not their diet, weight or bank balance.
Turns out it’s our approach to pain, loss, joy and triumph that matters most. It’s inevitable life will throw us curve balls – it’s what we do with them that’s important. We can run for cover and be beaten down, or we can say ‘no thank you’ and decide to seek joy, meaning and light even in those experiences that threaten to overwhelm us.
Here, Pearce shares four key insights based on the wisdom of those who have lived long and well.
1. You must love getting older
There are entire industries devoted to anti-ageing, but what if the secret to a long and happy life is in fact to embrace your age, whatever it is, and always look forward to the rest of your life?
In her series of acclaimed studies, begun in the 1970s, social psychologist Dr Becca Levy set out to uncover just how strong a role our thoughts play in the ageing process. She asked 650 people if they agreed with a range of statements such as ‘as I age I become less useful’ and ‘things keep getting worse as I get older’ or ‘I am as happy now as when I was younger’. The study then categorised people as either positive or negative in their attitude towards ageing.
Fast forward, and it was found that those with a negative view of ageing died a staggering 71⁄2 years before those who said they looked forward to getting older. This study didn’t look at the trendy longevity panaceas of diet, exercise, genetics or stress – all it measured was a set of beliefs.
2. You must have a reason for living
When studying people who have lived a long life, very often they have dedicated themselves to a great cause, purpose or passion. For Alice Herz- Sommer, whose amazing life story was portrayed in the 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary The Lady in Number 6, it was music. She loved music so much she played the piano for three hours every day until her death. Australian Masters athlete Ruth Frith, who died at age 104, competed until she was 102. Rose Kennedy, of the US Kennedy family, claimed her reason for living was ‘to raise a family of world leaders’. She lived to 104.
So what pushes your buttons? What makes you feel sensational? What gives you your drive? Whether it’s family, friends, work, faith, art, music or cooking, find and pursue the things that add depth and meaning for you.
3. You must enjoy exercising
I'm yet to meet someone who has all their faculties and a fabulous quality of life but does not exercise. They are all movers and shakers in some fashion.
They are not necessarily triathletes or marathon runners (it is believed that the only centenarian to run a marathon was Fauja Singh, who ran his race in Toronto at age 100), and they are not exercising because they think they ‘should’. They do it because they truly love the way it makes them feel, and this is more important than the activity itself.
Discover how you love to move your body. What physical activities inspire and motivate you? Herz- Sommer swam laps every day until she was 97. Frith lifted weights three times a week and attended athletics training twice a week until the day she died. It doesn’t need to be intense; a daily walk, regular yoga, a gentle swim or dancing are all wonderful natural movements, requiring no high-tech fad machines or gimmicky gadgets.
4. You must spend time with others
Graceful, happy agers don’t go it alone. They enjoy the company of friends and family, keep in regular contact, and know and understand the importance of community.
The ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is said to rise when we’re in social environments, whether it’s a simple family dinner or a big birthday bash. Two places in the world that have large healthy ageing populations are Ikaria in Greece and Okinawa in Japan, both with well-established traditions of strong community bonds.