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Fond memories and a little mischief

The following words jumped out at me from an article in The New Yorker written by Donald Hall, an 83-year-old former poet laureate. He quipped, "If we forget for a moment we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up."

You may recognize that statement to be true — but possibly not as engaging as I found it.

Try this one: "However alert we are — however much we think we know what will happen — antiquity remains an unknown, an unanticipated galaxy."

The comments from the sage Mr. Hall are nested under the heading "The View in Winter." He sees aging as "the circles growing smaller" and old age as a "ceremony of losses," but not something to be lamented. His solution to "aging well" is full immersion in fond recollection.

A different article in the same magazine talks about aging from a Peter Pan perspective. Remember when Peter said, "I won't grow up?" The woman currently playing that little imp's role on Broadway, as she has for almost two decades, is Cathy Rigby, the former Olympic gymnast who looks about 14 and is actually almost 60. She attributes successful aging to having some of Peter Pan's "sense of mischief."

It took me only .21 seconds at my computer to identify that there are 2,590,000 books and articles on successful aging. Quite a number of them discuss "the positivity effect," which at first sounded like something straight out of Neverland. It's usually described as a "biased tendency toward and preference for positive, emotionally gratifying experiences."

German neuroscientists found that elderly subjects who focused on life's more positive aspects had far greater emotional stability and life contentment. Maybe they were happier because they were happy.

Lifespan theories believe having a positivity bias in later life means "a greater emphasis on short-term rather than long-term priorities" and a tendency to realistically appraise the situation without any tendency toward negativism.

I think they would suggest that if we feel ourselves going down that darker path, we regroup — on the spot — by using humor, self-talk or the tender advice of someone who loves us.

Let's try an illustration. This example is drawn from a cartoon in the same issue of The New Yorker. The drawing depicts an aging couple. The husband has a bent-head, forlorn look. His wife, standing close, is saying, "But why not be happy about all the diseases you don't have?"

Toward the end of his career and well into old age himself, B.F. Skinner wrote a book about how to enjoy old age. And what do you think he found to be the most important? The role and power of positivism.

Take a minute and think about the best thing that's happened to you so far today. A glorious sunrise? A telephone call from a dear friend? An unexpected acknowledgement?

May I suggest you gather together and store those fond recollections and pull them out whenever needed. Maybe create a new set of "best things" tomorrow, too. That and a little periodic mischief should get you nicely through the week — and well beyond.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.