To be fully and freely ourselves is one of the most joyful and hard-won gifts of later life. The primary psychological tasks of the first half of life are establishing an identity and making a place for ourselves in the world. Outer-focused, we take cues from family, friends, and societal standards; we play games, keep up appearances, and pretend a little, or a lot, in order to feel accepted, to belong.

But in the second half of life, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. The joy of being and trusting ourselves is heightened for women because traditionally we have been socialized to value relationships and others’ needs ahead of our own. After decades of living for and through others, belonging to ourselves, at last, is an especially precious gift.

lady lying in grass

As we work free of the need for others’ approval, we move toward becoming our own authority and the author of our own life. The French have a wonderful term—women of a certain age—that reflects the growing ability in the second half of life to know who we are and to live accordingly. In “Indian Summer” author and activist Paula Gunn Allen describes a similar trend in the Native American world. “Middle age frees a woman for making choices congenial to her experience, circumstances, and nature. There she can choose who to be, now that her learning, practicing, and nurturing tasks are accomplished.” What emerges as women grow older, says Allen, is the “ever-more-evident being of just who they are and who they always have been.”

Many women report liking themselves better in midlife, as the youthful hope of perfection gives way to a mature contentment with being good enough, as they are. And winter affords the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the authentic self and to become more attentive and faithful to her promptings. Decreasing demands of childrearing and career in later life allow greater freedom to discover our preferences and follow our own rhythms. Lessening social pressure to look and act a certain way brings a sense of liberation and a daring to live by our own lights, regardless of what others think. And growing awareness of our limits and mortality heightens the desire to devote the time and energy we have to what genuinely matters. Authenticity deepens in the winter of life, bringing with it a refinement of power and greater freedom to be ourselves, even to the point of audacity.

Refined, Authentic Power

Power is a natural outgrowth of living from the inside out, rather than in terms of others’ expectations and standards. As a woman comes to know, trust, and honor herself, she grows more effective, more powerful. As she gives herself permission to focus on what matters most to her, she becomes a force with which to be reckoned. Refined power is not bullying, nor self-serving, however. Tempered by compassion and wisdom, it is practical, discerning, and, above all, concerned for the greater good.

Due to its abuse and negative connotations, we have lost a sense of the true meaning of the word power. Its root is related to potential, suggesting that power is something natural and latent within that enables us to be effective. As we become more authentic, we can harness our power to do what we must and to deal effectively with obstacles that arise. And as we grow more at home with who we are, we can stand firmly with ourselves, rather than stridently against others.

Man playing with tomatoes

Audacious Authenticity

As we grow into knowing, trusting, and honoring ourselves in later life, we give ourselves more permission to be audaciously and unapologetically who we are. In a sense, we come full circle with age, recovering an uncensored way of being, like young children who have not yet learned to hide parts of themselves and to pretend to be other than they are.

One of my deepest delights is spending time with my grandchildren. The two youngest, Lona and Lukas, were three and one when I was first writing a piece on late-life audacity for Winter’s Graces, and I was struck by how clearly they expressed their authentic preferences and emotions, using very few words. There were moments, of course, when their curiosity and delight carried them into territory that was dangerous or destructive, and it was necessary to set limits, lest they hurt themselves or someone else.

In a similar way, the audacity of late life is not simply self-indulgence or the reckless acting out of personal whims without regard for others. It is the freedom to be and express ourselves in authentic and unconventional ways, balanced and tempered by the recognition that we are not the center of things, but part of the web of life.

Gerontologists, anthropologists, and others have observed that this late-life “license for eccentricity” is often expressed in ribald humor, unselfconscious dancing, and forms of play such as climbing trees and jumping rope with children. Regardless of gender, perhaps as you’ve aged, you’ve noticed yourself feeling freed up to do or say certain things that you might not have dared to do or say in your younger days?

On Monday (July 23) Americans will celebrate Gorgeous Grandma Day – at least those who are familiar with the holiday. I knew nothing about GG Day until my oldest granddaughter Natalie ran across it while doing some online sleuthing a couple of months ago. The celebration of older women’s beauty is a heartening concept, in light of the mistaken yet tenacious belief that age and beauty are mutually exclusive. However, in places where elders are revered, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. And the Japanese have a term (shibui) for a particular kind of natural and unobtrusive beauty that deepens with age.

Unlike flawless or flashy beauty that draws attention to itself, shibui is characterized by beautiful imperfection, effortlessness, elegant simplicity, and understatement. It is apparent in weathered wood and stones, simple handmade pottery, the bark and bend of ancient trees, and in the faces of many elders.

The British film Calendar Girls presents a refreshingly affirming view of older women’s beauty, inspired by the statement of one of the characters, a man in midlife: “The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire—the last stage of their growth is the most glorious.” Rather than worrying about “losing our looks” as we age, we can broaden our definition of beauty and perhaps even celebrate some of the changes, like Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers: “I wish all my peers could enjoy their wrinkles as much as I enjoy mine. I regard them as badges of distinction that I have worked hard for.”

Asian Woman Smiling

William Shakespeare observed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and we can learn to recognize and appreciate shibui. The fresh beauty of youth is a delight and is easy to appreciate. But the fine lines at the corners of older eyes and those that reflect decades of laughter (and even distress) reveal a person’s character and life story, adding texture and richness that are also beautiful.

The kind of beauty that comes with age shines from the inside out, and the winter of life offers some of the most potent beauty secrets available: growing self-acceptance, a deepening sense of connectedness with all of life (gero-transcendence), humor and gratitude (dimensions of late-life contentment), playful engagement (emancipated innocence), increasing kindness and compassion toward self and others, savoring small pleasures and living one’s genuine priorities (late-life paring down and selectivity), and making peace with ourselves and the life we have lived through a process called the life review. These trends and tasks of later life may not preserve youthful prettiness, but they do radiate beauty.

Our attitudes toward aging are also a major factor in how well (and how beautifully) we age.  In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. He observes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

An optimistic outlook—about aging in particular and about life in general—is also essential for radiance in later life. Negative attitudes toward growing old are easily and often unconsciously absorbed, and they restrict our sense of what is possible. On the other hand, the combination of affirming our age, realistically facing limits, and remaining focused on what is now possible, engenders vitality.

Smiling Woman Portrait

In Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer Connie Goldman and Richard Mahler observe, “The sensation of being fully alive, spirited, and aware in later life is not a function of being young in the chronological sense. . . . The secret of remaining truly youthful means tapping into . . . the winning combination of a fresh, optimistic outlook with the kind of wisdom and self-knowledge that comes with each passing day. . . . An attitude that accepts change and encourages growth can be a guiding force in remaining healthy, upbeat, and invigorated, whatever the date on your birth certificate.”

Openness and optimism enhance our lives as we age, and they create a beautiful radiance. As Richard Rohr suggests in Falling Upward, “Just watch true elders sitting in any circle of conversation . . . This is human life in its crowning . . . All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that he or she is surely the goal of humanity.”

One of the more surprising things I’ve learned about aging is that older people are generally happier than younger ones. Several studies, drawing on data from dozens of countries, have confirmed that life satisfaction tends to follow a U-shaped curve across adulthood: contentment is fairly high in young adulthood, slowly drops and hits a low point at about fifty, and then steadily climbs to new heights in later life. Other factors, such as good-enough health, an optimistic outlook, and environmental support play a role in fostering late-life happiness, yet age itself is a friend of contentment. Long years often bring a maturing and mellowing of perspective, and changes in the aging brain also play a role in late-life well being.

Long years bring a rich store of experiences from which we can learn the art of living, so long as our minds, eyes, and ears stay open, and our hearts remain teachable. Reflecting on our experience, over time, enables us to see more clearly and deeply into life as it is, rather than through the filter of our unexamined opinions, desires, and expectations about how things should be.

From the perspective afforded by decades of living, we recognize that the human journey is far more complex, paradoxical, and unpredictable than it may once have seemed. We learn that there are multiple ways of viewing situations, that we do not always know what is right or best, and that actions may not always have the desired effect. Whereas it may once have seemed fairly simple to distinguish good from bad experiences, with age we come to appreciate the many shades of gray and the wide array of paradoxes and puzzlements that are the stuff of life.

Senior Couple On Bicycles

Such post operational thinking enables us to stand back and view situations with greater clarity and equanimity. And as we move beyond oversimplified, either-or vision and its inevitable companion, Certainty, we become less reactive and more discerning about when to act and when to “let be.”

My mother grew more and more content as she aged, and she knew a lot about letting be. (She was also gusty and could be quite a force at times.) About two years before her death, I was visiting one day and asked how she was doing. Instead of her usual response (“wonderful” or “really good,”) she said, “Pretty good.” When I urged her to tell me more, she added, “There are some things going on around here that I don’t much like.” When I asked, “What things?” she paused and confided with a shy smile, “I don’t remember.” We both laughed at that, and then I asked what she did when there was something going on that she didn’t like.

She thought for a moment and said, “Well, first I see if there’s anything I can do about it, and if there is, I do it. And if there isn’t, I let it go.” Years later, I realized that was a wonderful recipe for contentment.

Nepal Woman

Denbelitsky/Bigstock.com

Despite the inevitable losses of late life, emotions like sadness and anger become more muted and less frequent with age, while the capacity for joy, delight, wonder, and gratitude often deepens. One reason for this shift is the tendency for the emotion-processing centers of the brain (the amygdalae) to become less reactive with age, especially to negative emotional stimuli.

In one study, psychologist Mara Mather and her associates showed younger and older adults negative and positive imagery and noticed significant differences between the two age groups, in terms of brain activity, emotional experience, and recall. Brain scans revealed that elders’ amygdalae were less responsive to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. In addition, older participants reported fewer negative emotions during the session and were more likely to recall positive imagery afterward, compared to younger participants.

Changes in the brain and in our perspective support the development of what some gerontologists call the emotional mastery of later life: the ability to recognize and regulate our emotions and to express them in nonharming ways. Our responses to other people and to life events tend to mature and become more adaptive, flexible, and kind. With age, for example, we are less likely under stress to blame or turn against others and more likely to try to understand and find meaning or humor in a difficult situation. Summarizing a number of studies with adults over sixty-five, Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner notes, “With age people can more readily move in and out of different emotional states . . . [and] report experiencing more freedom and control during emotional experiences.”

The calming of the aging brain, the broadening and maturing of our perspective, and the growth of emotional mastery enhance our own happiness, which is a blessing in itself. More importantly, these same late-life developments, coupled with long years of experience and learning, also contribute to the growth of another late-life gift that the human family desperately needs  – wisdom – which is the capacity to sense the best course of action in important, complex, and uncertain situations.

In many places, older adults are respected, even revered. The Japanese, for example, regard their elders as “national treasures” and even have a word—shibui—for the beauty of age. And in societies where elders are valued, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. But where youth is the yardstick and age is mistakenly equated with devastating decline, we learn to dread getting old, which creates a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

One reason for the misunderstanding of age as a problem is that the earliest studies of late life took place in hospitals with elders who were sick, which led to an overemphasis on the losses of late life. That “misery perspective” colored our collective view of aging for decades. But more recent research has established that aging is not an inevitable slide into misery and that the things we most fear about being old are the exception, not the rule. Most people over 65, for example, do not suffer from severe dementia or debilitating frailty. In fact, most of the losses that were once considered inevitable in later life are the result of inactivity and illness–not years–and can be prevented, delayed, or offset by not smoking, by regular exercise, and other health-friendly practices.

Best of all, we now know that age brings us many gifts; here are just a few examples: Older people are generally happier than younger ones. Starting in midlife, we become more comfortable with who we are – imperfections and all – and in turn, grow more tolerant of others. Aging has a “mellowing effect” on the brain, making us less reactive and better able to manage our emotions and express them nonharming ways (emotional mastery).

Many older people also report a deepening sense of belonging to something greater than themselves (gero-transcendence) and an increasing willingness to “let go and let be,” rather than needing to have things go their way. And the spontaneous return of long-forgotten memories urges us to review our life – to find the threads of meaning and cohesiveness that have run through it and to accept ourselves and the life we have lived as “good enough.”

In the late autumn of his life, William Butler Yeats experienced a joyful epiphany: “My body of a sudden blazed/And twenty minutes more or less/It seemed so great my happiness/That I was blessed and could bless.”  To reflect on our years and recognize that we are blessed is one of the sweetest gifts of age. And it is intertwined with a second: to know that we are capable of blessing others. In fact, that is our task and our privilege. The traditional role of the elder is to bless the young, and age gives us the tools we need to do that – self-acceptance, tolerance of others’ foibles, contentment, emotional mastery, a deep sense of connection and belonging, and long years in the school of wisdom, which is human life.

 

Artist: Suzanne de Veuve

 

Sign up for our mailing list.

X
MAILING LIST SIGNUP