What are the Secrets to Successful Aging?

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When we think about satisfaction in later life, we usually focus on things like maintaining physical and mental health, volunteering and having positive relationships with others. But, what about when life narrows—when the body breaks down, when our social roles diminish, when we suffer deep losses?

During those times, and for many of us, perhaps before, we wonder if there are secrets to successful aging. Are there precautions or actions we can take? Or are there daily practices we can develop that can help us maintain a higher quality of life and positive sense of wellbeing as we move into the later stages of our life?

Erik and Joan Erikson, who developed an influential theory on the stages of the human life span, added a ninth stage of development for people in their 80s, in which wisdom plays a crucial role. “Even the simple activities of daily living may present difficulty and conflict,” they wrote. “To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course.” The key, they believed, was to set goals that match one’s current capacities.

A useful definition of wisdom is maintaining positive well-being in the face of challenges.

Here are some of the components of wisdom:

  • Emotional resiliency
  • Positivity
  • Self-insight
  • Kindness toward self and others
  • Generativity (giving back to others)
  • Humility
  • Ability to learn from experience
  • Understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute
  • Acceptance
  • Gratitude

“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” says Monika Ardelt of the University of Florida. Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of of wellbeing. “If things are really, bad, it’s good to be wise,” she says.