Saturday, November 6, 2010

Aging Well

Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult DevelopmentAging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study do Adult Development by George Valliant, M.D.

Very interesting book. This landmark study from Harvard is made up of three cohort studies that began back in the year 1938. It follows over 800 subjects over the course of their lives. At the time of this book being published, most of these folks were mid to late seventies. This research is the epitome of what a longitude study can encompass. Now, how someone wants to pull meaning out of that preponderance of information also becomes quite fascinating. I think Valliant makes a… ahem… valiant effort to be as scientific as he can when he draws out his conclusions. He works a great deal with Erickson's Stages for Adult Development and adds his own tweaks to that model as he goes through his findings.

As a therapist who has worked with older clients – I found this book exceptionally insightful into the aging process as well as how to clarify ways in which an elder can explore his or her own meaning making. As a middle aged woman, I read Valliant's findings with interest and agreement. Well-formed identity; intimacy, career development (commitment, competency, compensation and contentment); adaptive coping style and generativity are some of the attributes that he sees coming together to increase the likelihood that someone will live a long life.

Aging well isn't about genetics. This I know. And yes, Valliant does talk about health and moderate exercise but he is stressing the ways in which we form our outlook on life as a better predictor of how we will cross that threshold into our senior years. He may brush over how adaptive coping styles relates to depression which leads to isolationism – and he may not talk about attachment theory when he is detailing what happens when a forty year old has yet to build their own identity separate from their parents but all in all, he does tease out a complex relationship between a host of attributes that are rather compelling.

I have known now for years that my ability to adapt to change is directly related to how happy and content I feel. My ability to cope emotionally goes hand in hand with how I reach out into the world – how I try to take my place in the world. It defines how I open my heart to others and how I allow life to flow in and out of my own journey. These ways of being are all part of what Valliant describes as developmental tasks that when embraced well can create a higher satisfaction with the life I can have as I age.

Thinking about my parents who are around the ages of the study participants, I also see how difficult it is to tease out how aging well actually works. The tasks and stages that Valliant lays out are not sequential and I also believe that sometimes regression can happen as well.

And, in the end, does it really matter whether or not we can predict or define 'aging well?" To a certain extent, we are all the products of experience, wisdom, learned behavior, and circumstances. Like most human beings (now there's a generalization) – I do like to think there is a blueprint out there that will lead me to a long and fruitful life. Valliant's work feeds that need quite nicely.

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