In the late 1970′s a Harvard psychologist asked a group of 70 and 80-year old men to experience themselves as they had been 20 years earlier.
Until then, day-to-day living had been managed primarily by their adult children. Agreeing to live independently for one week without help, other than shared effort, they boarded a bus headed to the New Hampshire countryside to live in an old monastery, the interior “down”-dated, circa 1950.
It was an amazing study with amazing results. Before the start of the week, lead investigator, Dr. Ellen Langer, collected data measuring memory, concentration, gait, posture, finger length, blood pressure, grip strength and more. Imagining themselves minus 20 years had profound effects. The men participated in daily chores, preparing meals, washing dishes, making beds and joining in lively discussions relevant to political and social news and thinking of the late 1950′s.
Without assistance, the message was clear; “You’re on your own. You have to care for yourselves”. What might have been hidden in the message – “We expect you can”. Post-week measures of cognitive and physiological functioning revealed improvements beyond anything predicted following a mere 7 days of self-sufficiency and positive imaginings. The men were taller, stronger, better able to concentrate and remember. Blood pressure was down, moods were up. Outside observers asked to review before and after photographs chose post-week images as having been taken at an earlier time in the mens’ lives.
Had they actually improved or did Dr. Langer’s “psychology of possibilities”, awaken dormant capacities? What had been the effect prior to this week, of having everything done for them, including decisions made about whatto eat and do and feel? Assistance in the short term can be life saving – over time, without the expectation of a return to self-sufficiency – the body and mind weaken. Had these men been aging prematurely?
In the 40 or so years since the investigation took place, the phrase “mind over matter” has taken on meaning thought impossible as recently as the 1990′s. For example, when people think of themselves as years younger than their age, they live longer than those seeing themselves as their actual or close to actual age. The larger the spread, the longer the life. And, if you feel older than your peers, you’re more likely to experience an ailment requiring hospitalization. Subliminal exposure to negative words related to age (“senile”, “fading”, “declining”, “failing”), may cause you to perform less well on handwriting and memory tests than you would immediately prior to exposure. Perception influences confidence, then function. In time, perception influences form.
In the end, whether it’s the views held by others or ourselves – stereotypes, labels, prejudice – we step into (become) what we believe. Embracing positive expectations, for example, “Older people are capable and wise, vibrant and interesting”, may help you age more successfully than you would believing, “Older people are weak and dependent, unattractive and slow”. Guided by images and thoughts of vitality and curiosity, you’re likely to be healthier, happier, more involved, age more slowly and live well longer. The good news…whatever your view, it was learned and can be unlearned – replaced with health and life promoting expectations.
For years women have lied about their age. Never with malice, but because something better, more attractive, more desirable and spirited was attached to a lower number. Maybe wearing that number day after day has an effect beyond desirability. Maybe it makes women feel more alive, pushing them on to walk with the zest of their ten-year younger self, to stand upright, to smile more brightly…maybe it’s the real reason women live longer than men. Your body is listening…what are you saying?
Dr Austen Hayes
Founding Fellow, Academy of Cognitive Therapy
Clinical Instructor, The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York