You’re as Young as You Feel

by Ellen

We’ve all heard the adage that we are only as old as we feel.  I believe that chronological age tells us very little other than what popular culture we have shared with peers of our youth.  One person’s forty years can look an awful lot like another’s seventy, depending on the genetic luck of the draw and how well we choose to take care of ourselves.  While a good diet and and active lifestyle are usually linked to better health and longevity, the mind-body connection also plays an important part in overall well-being. Optimism, relaxation, humor, persistence and high self-esteem doubtlessly predict a better quality of life.  Can a positive outlook and a belief we are capable of performing “younger” tasks actually make it so?

Growing Younger?

In the early 1980’s a Harvard psychology professor, Ellen Langer, conducted an unusual experiment, which came to be called the “Counterclockwise Study.”  She recruited men in their seventies and eighties to participate in a week-long retreat at an old monastery in New Hampshire.  The lodging was first altered to lack any feature more modern than vintage 1959.  Radio programs, books, magazines, music and television shows were what you might have found had you visited the retreat in 1959.

Half of the men were told they should live as if they were still in the year 1959, believing they were actually twenty-two years younger.  For one week they discussed books, politics and sports from 1959 — in the present tense.  The control group of men arrived the second week.  They were instructed to reminisce about 1959, but remain firmly in 1981.  At the beginning and end of each week, health indicators (strength, dexterity, memory, hearing, vision, etc.) were measured.  Interestingly, both groups of men benefited health-wise from the week in New Hampshire, with marked improvement in hearing, memory, strength and weight.  But, the men who were told to believe they were twenty-two years younger had significantly better results.  They even grew taller!  When people not connected with the study were asked to examine “before” and “after” photographs of the experimental participants, they felt the subjects in the “after” photos looked considerably younger.  These changes took place in just a week.

The Mind-Body Connection

We perform all kinds of mind-body manipulations without giving them a second thought:  Basketball players visualize the ball going through the hoop before they take a shot.  Some people reduce stress by practicing yoga or meditation.  Watching a scary movie for fun makes the heart race as if we were at the scene.

Not too long ago I opened a hot clay pot too quickly and exposed my wrist to a very bad burn by steam.  Realizing that I was facing a nasty wound that would probably blister, I decided to give the mind-body thing a try.  I ran my arm under cold water (just in case) and concentrated as hard as I could on the burned section, visualizing cool, unharmed skin for several minutes.  I am pleased to report that I had no blistering or pain from that wound.  I was sold!

Mindful Living

Langer advocates “Mindfulness,” or “the simple process of actively drawing distinctions.  It is finding something new in what we may think we already know.”¹  If mindset affects well-being, we have much more control over our lives than we may realize.   Acting mindfully opens up possibilities in life that we’d be blind to if we acted mindlessly.  Even our choice of language affects how we see ourselves and others.  When the counterclockwise men were made to carry their own suitcases and cook their own meals, they found a way to make it happen.  Maybe they had to be creative to work around limitations, but with a little creativity they took greater control over their lives.

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1)  Langer, Ellen J. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York:  Balantine Books, 2009.

2)  “Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption,” by Carey K. Morewedge, Young Eun Huh,and Joachim VosgerauScience 10 December 2010: 1530-1533. [DOI:10.1126/science.1195701]


Photo Credit: SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget on flickr

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Denise March 24, 2011 at 2:13 pm

You definitely see this at work with children. So often when they fall and get a bump or bruise, if they don’t remember that they are hurt they are off playing as hard as before in seconds. They would rather play than focus on the minor irritations and pain in life. I think we can all take lessons from them on paying attention to what is more important!

Ellen March 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Great point, Denise! Children can teach us a lot about looking at the world from several different angles, too. Their creativity isn’t stopped by boundaries that seem to develop later in life.

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