How to age well

It is a sad fact that for many of us the prospect of getting old is quite scary. We look around and see old people hobbling slowly along the street and we look away. We think of retirement homes with distaste, if not with outright horror. Is that what will happen to us? Will we become old and sick and unable to function normally? We can hardly bear to think about it.

Of course, if we do think about it we can all identify old people who are mentally and physically active and lead satisfying lives. But it seems a matter of chance – some are lucky, some are not. Better not to dwell on it.

However, it is not a matter of chance – it’s not about genes or bad luck, or being born into the wrong family. Studies by George Vaillant (2004) of the same people over 60 years show that aging well can be attributed to certain controllable factors, and they are not the ones we might think that they are.

He defined positive aging as consisting of six dimensions:

  1. absence of objective physical disability as rated by a doctor
  2. subjective physical health as rated by the person themselves
  3. length of undisabled life – whether the person had lost any years before age 80 to actual or perceived disability
  4. objective mental health as rated by success in work, love, play, and avoiding psychiatric care
  5. objective social supports – good connections with wife, children and grandchildren, siblings, playmates (eg golf, tennis, sailing) and social networks (clubs, etc) as rated by others
  6. subjective life satisfaction as rated by the person themselves

He used these dimensions to classify over 500 subjects from different class backgrounds (college and inner-city) along a continuum that ranged from “happy-well” to “sad-sick” at age 70-80. The happy-well tended to have high ratings in most or all of these dimensions; those with low ratings were more likely to be sad-sick, or had died before age 70-80. Then he looked at factors that had been measured earlier in their lives to see what contributed to this rating.

First let’s look at what did not predict positive aging. The happy-well did not have longer-lived ancestors, higher cholesterol, higher social class, warmer childhoods, more stable childhood temperaments, or higher stress than the sad-sick. Contrary to what we would believe, better genes, low cholesterol, social class, upbringing, temperament and stress-free living do not contribute significantly to a healthy and happy old age.

So what did contribute to a happy and healthy old age? Each of the following variables were shown to lead to a positive old age, regardless of social class or other factors:

  1. Not being a smoker or stopping smoking before age 45. Not smoking heavily before age 50 was the single best predictor of healthy aging, but if they quit smoking completely before age 45 the effect at 70-80 was much the same.
  2. Using adaptive coping styles. Coping styles involve the use of defense mechanisms to deal with stressful situations. We all use them, but some, such as humour, altruism and stoicism are “more mature” than others such as denial and passive-aggression. It is more adaptive, and healthier, to laugh at misfortune than to deny it is happening.
  3. Not abusing alcohol. Alcohol abuse was defined as “the evidence of multiple alcohol-related problems” with family, work, health, and the law.
  4. Healthy weight. Weight was measured using the body mass index (BMI). Being overweight (BMI> 28) or underweight (BMI<22) class="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_1">positive aging.
  5. Stable marriage. Getting to age 50 without divorce, separation or serious problems contributed to positive aging.
  6. Exercise. Regular exercise of more than 500 kilocalories per week was required.
  7. Years of education. Those with higher education tended to stop smoking, eat sensibly and drink in moderation because they were higher in self-care, future orientation and perseverance.

This is great news for all of us. All of these factors are controllable – we can ensure that we remain healthy and happy into old age just by controlling our smoking, alcohol consumption, weight and exercise, and by working on ourselves and our marriages to cope better with stress and setbacks. The fact that a higher education makes us more likely to do these things should not stop us just because we didn’t go on to college or university.


Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vaillant, George E. (2004). Positive Aging. In P. Alex Linley & Stephen Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp.561-578). New York: Wiley.

Are you a maximizer or a satisficer?

One thing you can say without fear of contradiction about the modern world is that we have more choice than ever before. Choice about careers; lifestyles; which city or suburb to live in; which house to buy; which car to buy; which school to send our kids to; which university to go to ourselves; which supermarket to shop in; which clothes to wear; which washing powder to buy; how to have our coffee; a never-ending list of choices assail us everywhere we go. How do we make these choices?

Research by psychologist Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore College in the States has shown that people consistently make choices in different ways. Some are maximizers – they keep looking until they have found the best possible choice among all of the alternatives. Others are satisficers – they search until they have found a choice that is good enough and then stop. People are all somewhere along this continuum, so some are more maximizers (more obsessive!) than others, and some satisficers are less selective than others. Where are you?

Comparing myself and my husband I have to say that I am a maximizer and he is a satisficer. When we are shopping for new spectacles, for example, I find a pair of spectacles I like and then I keep looking to see if there is anything better that I like more. He will find one that he likes, presumably that meets the criteria he had set, and buys them then and there. We constantly amaze (and annoy) each other to the point where it’s better if we don’t go shopping together.

Which decision style is better? Schwarz found that maximizers spent longer making a decision, as you would expect, but then they were less satisfied with their choices than the satisficers. Satisficers make a decision, are satisfied with the decision, and then move on. Maximizers, perhaps, are still looking around afterwards to see if they could have made a better choice even after it is too late. Satisficers are happier.

If you have identified yourself as a maximizer, how can you be more satisfied with the choices you make? Well, for a start, you might try to be more selective about which decisions you agonise over. If you are spending more than five minutes choosing a birthday card or a washing powder then perhaps you are not valuing your own time sufficiently. Keep the agonizing for the big decisions – the choice of schools, jobs, homes, partners, and set yourself goals for the small decisions to choose within a set time limit or within a restricted range.


Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


A discussion about happiness, wellbeing, mental health, or whatever you want to call it, must soon get around to values. What are your values? What is most important to you? What can you not do without in your relationships, your job, your social activities? What values do you want your kids to have? Your husband or wife? Your friends?

Any search on the internet on values will come up with a list to choose from. The list itself doesn’t really matter, what matters is whether you can find 3 or 4 or 5 values that mean something to you.

Here are some suggestions: Accomplishment, Admiration, Authenticity, Beauty, Belonging, Choice, Communication, Creativity, Excitement, Freedom, Friendship, Fun, Health, Helping, Honesty, Humour, Independence, Individuality, Influence, Intimacy, Joy, Knowledge, Love, Money, Peace, Power, Recognition, Respect, Security, Self-determination, Self-fulfilment, Sensuality, Solitude, Stability, Status, Success.

Pick five, and then consider each one separately. How are these values displayed in your life right now? In your work? In your home life? In your hobbies or other activities? With your family? Think, too, about where these values came from. From your upbringing? Were they important to your parents as well? Or are they the opposite of what your parents valued? Do they fall into line with the culture at work?

Perhaps the values you are living by came from somewhere else? Which values would you prefer to live by? Perhaps, too, the values you’ve chosen are your own, and yet you find that they are getting lost in everyday life. There isn’t the time, or the money, to help others, or to be as creative as you would like. Or perhaps you have all the power and money that you could want or expect, and it still isn’t enough…

Questions like these can start you on the road to being happier than you are now.