Aging: It’s All In Your Mind

Like most animal lovers, I learn a lot from my dogs. (Don’t stop reading if you’re not a dog lover- I promise this will apply to you as well!)

A couple of years ago Emily- a 6 month old pit bull- left the Bark Avenue Rescue Facility in Los Angeles and joined my family, which at the time consisted of me and Woodstock, a 12 year old male pit-lab mix.

Immediately something interesting happened.

Woodstock- who was at the time, to put it diplomatically, a senior citizen- got a new lease on life. He started running again, like he used to do when he was a puppy. Emily got him to chase her everywhere. They played constantly. Woodstock spent less and less time sleepily contemplating life, and more and more time actively involved in it.

He literally got younger.

I was thinking about this recently while reading Ellen Langer’s brilliant book “Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility”.

Langer you may know from the Oprah show—she authored the classic book, “Mindfulness”– but she’s a Harvard psychologist with a stunning resume in social research that goes back thirty years. In one study she took a group of really decrepit elderly men in their late 80’s from their assisted living home, packed them all up and took them to a cabin in the woods for the week. The catch was that the cabin was engineered to be a “time capsule”. All the furniture was from the 1950’s. Posters on the wall were from the 1950’s. There was a small black and white television, rigged to play only shows like “Sgt. Bilko” and “The Ed Sullivan Show”. A 1957 Ford was parked outside.  They met daily to discuss “current events” like the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1 and the need for bomb shelters, and Castro’s advance into Havana. “Best-selling” titles like “Exodus” and “Goodbye Columbus” lined the bookshelves, Nat “King” Cole played on the “radio”.

By the end of the week, an amazing thing had happened.

These men- most of whom couldn’t carry their bags to their rooms at the start of the study- were able to carry them back to the van at the end of the week. Their blood pressure had lowered. Their posture was more erect. Their measured grip strength had improved, as had joint flexibility and manual dexterity. Their hearing and memory showed significant gains. Even their finger length increased- their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more.

Absolutely amazing.

“The study shaped not only my view of aging but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades”, writes Langer. “Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits”.

Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true”.

What we surround ourselves with deeply influences how we function, what we believe about ourselves, and what we become. Studies have shown that even obesity is “contagious” in the sense that we are more likely to be obese if we have many obese friends. Our expectations of ourselves- and the expectations of those around us- influence us far more deeply than we appreciate. What we believe about our health has a powerful influence not only on how we feel, but also on objective measures of well-being and vitality.

As they say in the motivational speaking world, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time around”.

Woodstock became “younger” when he interacted with 6-month old Emily, who expected him to behave like other puppies and had no concept of him as a “limited” older citizen. The men in Langer’s study behaved as if they were in the 1950’s when they “expected” more of themselves and believed they could deliver.

So what’s the message?

Maybe it’s this: Definitions are fluid. How we think about our health and what we think is possible actually makes a difference in what is possible. What- and who- we surround ourselves with really makes a difference. And if we allow ourselves to be defined by narrow and confining images of who and what we limit- rather than expand- possibility.

No wonder Langer calls her work “the psychology of possibility”.

In 1954, something that had never been done before in the history of humans was achieved when Roger Bannister ran a mile in just under 4 minutes, a feat that had been believed to be unreachable and physiologically impossible. A mere month and a half later Bannister’s record was broken, and now the 4-minute mile is the standard of all professional middle distance runners. In the last 50 years, the record has been lowered by 50 seconds.

If you can see it- as every athlete after Bannister did— you’ll believe it’s possible.

If you believe it’s possible- you just might be able to do it.

In what area of your health- or life- have self-imposed barriers, or restricting definitions- limited you?

More important- are those limits real? Or did you make them up?

Because if you made those limits up– even if you had widespread agreement about them, like the men in Langer’s study who everyone agreed were “disabled”- then maybe it’s time to come up some new, more empowering possibilities.

After all, we’re the ones who write our self-definitions.

We’re the ones who can rewrite them.

The possibilities are limitless.