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Interview: October 31, 2014

Mindy Greenstein, PhD and Jimmie Holland, MD are the brilliant duo behind LIGHTER AS WE GO: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging. In it, they show us that, contrary to common wisdom, our sense of well-being actually increases with our age, by exploring the positive psychology concepts of character strengths and virtues. In this interview, award-winning author Caroline Leavitt (whose most recent work is the New York Times bestseller IS THIS TOMORROW) talks to Greenstein and Holland about aging throughout the centuries --- how it is and has been perceived, the stigmas that historically have been attached to it, and its cultural implications. They especially shed light on the concept of “learning as we go” and how a greater knowledge of self (that comes from experience) can diffuse personal boundaries and create a more comfortable position in the world.

Caroline Leavitt: I always want to know what sparked this book? Why now?

Mindy Greenstein: I found it so ironic that people are living longer than ever before, and yet aging has a terrible image problem. It’s associated in people’s minds with losses and problems, instead of the gains that are just as real. But a lot of 80- and 90-year-olds who we’ve met (an age group that includes Jimmie) don’t feel that way at all, even though they do tend to have more medical problems and general challenges. At 51, I also have a different attitude toward aging than a lot of my friends, thanks to my work with cancer patients and two bouts of breast cancer myself. For me, aging is definitely the preferred alternative! When we discovered the U-Bend studies, which showed that well-being actually increases in older age --- and that people Jimmie’s age rated their lives as more satisfying than the 20-somethings did --- we really thought it was time to share our knowledge.

Jimmie Holland: The spark for this book came for me from two sources: recognizing the stigma attached to elders today, which seems outrageous; and the fact that Cicero’s “On Old Age,” an essay written in 44 BC, shows that exactly the same attitudes were present back then. Exploring why these facts were so and how they might be explained was exciting. The book evolved from that exploration.

CL: “We learn who we are as we go” is a remarkable statement, especially in the light of our society’s thinking old people become less as they age, both mentally and physically, yet this doesn’t have to be the case. Please talk about this.

MG: Over the course of the years, we become less afraid of what other people think of us. That liberates us to say what we think, and to know what we want, without apology. We also learn who we are by looking back on the choices we’ve made, and the ways we’ve responded to what life has thrown at us. In one of our Aging and Illness support groups, we asked how people’s perspectives had changed since they were younger. A retired physician in his 70s laughed. “I didn’t have perspective when I was younger!” When we’re older, we can look back and see patterns, we create a narrative that makes sense of the lives we’ve led so far. That narrative can help guide how we want to live the rest of our lives from now on. Do I want to make the same choices or different choices? What will make me happy now, given what I know about myself and the way life works? We have a lot more data to help answer these questions at age 75 than we did at age 35. As one 90-something woman told us, “I came out of my shell at 70!”

JH: Only in the last 20 years have we psychiatrists and psychologists moved from an obsession with personality problems and negatives, and begun to study people’s positive qualities. The four basic virtues described by the ancient Greeks --- temperance, prudence, courage and justice --- are repeated in different ways in the world’s great religious and philosophic traditions. In fact, they are essential to our survival as a society. These virtues form the basis of the traits --- or character strengths --- that we hone over a lifetime by coping with life’s adversities. By old age, these strengths lead people to be more comfortable with themselves and wiser in how they understand the human condition.

CL: Some of the most fascinating parts of the book were in the history of aging. What surprised you the most?

MG: Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was just how old ageism is in the western world. Many people (including us) assumed ageism to be a fairly modern invention, compared with olden times, when people venerated older age and appreciated the wisdom that came with it. On the contrary, the ancient Greeks described older age as “accursed,” “sorrowful” and “hated even by the gods.” Another surprise was how a “good” attitude toward aging could lead to bad treatment of elders. Nineteenth-century reformers, for instance, thought that elder years could be very happy and healthy. Some even thought people could live well into the hundreds. The downside was that elders who were ill or who weren’t bounding around town were treated like moral failures.

JH: The history of aging is fascinating. I was most interested in the changes in the attitude toward elders in the US. The biggest surprise for me was how hard it was to get the first old age assistance bill through the US Congress, long after the rest of the western world had instituted some sort of pension. I see many of the same attitudes that exist today were there in the 1930s.

CL: What do you think successful aging is, and how can even young people start preparing for it now? (And you do have to prepare, right?)

MG: It’s important to remember that success is in the mind of the beholder. My definition at 81 might be very different than any definition I come up with now. Two ingredients I think of now are the ability to laugh and to feel joy, not all the time, but enough of the time so that I can appreciate the gift of being alive. One of the best ways to prepare for aging is simply to recognize some of its positives. Researchers at Yale found that having a positive image of aging while we’re still young was associated with better health when we’re older. Maybe one reason is that knowing there’s something to look forward to motivates us to live healthier, now as well as later.

JH: People often start fearing the loss of youth as early as their 20s. We do very little to change their negative attitudes. In fact, our culture makes the problem worse by not encouraging more interaction between the generations. The more that younger people interact with older adults, the less their attitudes will be affected by our culture’s adoration of youth and beauty. As Mindy mentioned, research shows that younger people who are afraid of aging are more likely to develop chronic diseases of old age earlier, such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. So, it’s in everyone’s best interest, young and old, to learn to appreciate the positives of older age.

CL: What’s obsessing you now and why?

MG: I wish I could pretend I wasn’t watching how our book is doing and looking at reviews or sales numbers, that I’m too deep and mature for such nonsense. But I’m working on it. Maybe when I’m older and traveling lighter, I’ll be able to care less.

JH: I am obsessed about trying to counter negative attitudes towards aging, by improving everyday interactions between young and old. I would like to live long enough to work on these problems and see them solved.

CL: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

MG: What was it like to work together on this project? And the answer is: incredibly fun. Jimmie and I are not only from different generations, we’re very different personally, too. She’s the can-do Texas shiksa, while I’m the “oy-vey” New York Jew who’s always searching for potential problems down the road. I like to think some of her can-do’ness has rubbed off on me. Also, she serves as a wonderful example of the positives of older age that I can aspire to --- greater wisdom and ease with myself, a sense of humor about the things I can’t change, the ability to appreciate everyday moments and a feeling of deep belonging to something greater than myself (for an example of the latter, just look at the difference between our answers to the last question).

JH: How old I am --- 86.