Each year, from mid November through December, it is a challenge not to become swept up in the Holidaze – a shopping and overdoing frenzy that takes an enormous toll on bank accounts, physical and cognitive health, and emotional well-being. In the past few years, I’ve tried many strategies for slowing down and restoring simplicity, stillness, and silence to the weeks before and after the winter solstice, a time that humankind has long regarded as sacred.

And this year I’ve become increasingly aware that age can be an ally in freeing ourselves from the frenzy and rediscovering the blessings of winter. The holidays were originally holy days, honoring the return of the light during the darkest part of the year. Ancient celebrations among the Hopi and Celts and in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere varied, but almost always included fire (a symbol of hope) and boughs of greenery, representing the eternal circle of creation. In the next few blogs, I want to explore how many of the developmental trends of later life can assist us in reclaiming winter as a time of hope, renewal, and joy, beginning with Coming Home to Ourselves. Later pieces will address the blessings of Slowness, Simplicity, Celebration, and Silence.

Older woman drinking tea and talking.

Coming Home to Ourselves 

Later life affords the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the authentic self and to become more attentive and faithful to its promptings. Decreasing demands of family and career 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 others’ opinions.

As we age, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. And after decades of living by others’ standards, belonging to ourselves, at last, is a precious gift. In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott conveys the joy of coming home to herself as she’s aged. “Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life—it has given me me.”

Growing self acceptance and deepening trust in what we know in our bones enable us to make choices that are more congenial to our nature, our circumstances, and our values. As psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, becoming more authentic strengthens our ability to resist cultural prescriptions that don’t suit us. Age strengthens the Self so that we can say Yes to what we value and No to what we don’t.

Nepal man sitting in doorway

Shifting Toward Intrinsic Values

In the winter of life, materialism tends to lose its appeal, and intrinsically satisfying values like generosity and kindness become more compelling. Giving ourselves to what matters most and knowing that we are contributing in a meaningful way bring joy and fulfillment. This shift toward more intrinsic values may be one of the reasons that contentment tends to increase in later life.

A number of studies have revealed that material wealth can actually interfere with happiness, and that the most contented people are motivated by values like love and compassion. In The How of Happiness psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky summarizes her own and others’ findings. “Not only does materialism not bring happiness, it’s been shown to be a strong predictor of unhappiness. . . . [It often distracts] people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present moment, and contributing to their communities.” Lyubomirsky‘s remarks seem especially important to remember at this time of year, when shopping and overdoing can so easily take us over, leaving little time or energy for enjoying loved ones and caring for those in need.

Increasing Selectivity

Growing awareness of our mortality in later life heightens the need to devote the time and energy we have left to what genuinely matters. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen points out that older people become more selective about the activities and relationships in which they invest themselves, focusing on what matters most and letting go of what doesn’t. Thus, with age, we grow less willing to participate in what others are doing if it doesn’t feel good or ring true for us. If it does not suit us, we can say No to the frenzy and find more satisfying ways to spend the holidays.

The gifts of selectivity, intrinsic valuing, and authenticity each affect late-life development in a number of ways, but together they can also serve as allies in helping us say No to the Holidaze – a necessary first step in recovering the intrinsic blessings of the winter.  For more on the history and soulful celebration of light in the midst of darkness, I highly recommend John Matthews’ beautiful and inspiring and book, The Winter Solstice.

Creativity is our essence and our birthright, a way of being that every child knows and adults can rediscover. It is often associated with genius and works of art, yet creativity is also a way of living, characterized by curiosity, playfulness, and wholeheartedness—qualities that tend to be at their peak in early childhood and often again in the winter of life.

According to Jeanne Nakamura and Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, being engaged in activities we love is the essence of creativity in the winter of life. In fact, they found that many creatively engaged elders are unable to imagine not being involved with that which absorbs them. Whether an older person continues exploring within a lifelong vocation or moves into a new area of passion in later life, the underlying call is the same: to pursue what is meaningful and absorbing for its own sake, apart from other considerations, like reputation, success, or financial gain.1

Man With Tousled Long Hair playing violin

Benefits of Creative Engagement

Numerous studies in psychology, gerontology, and the arts have shown that late-life engagement with something we love is strongly related to physical health and emotional well-being, a sense of meaning and purpose, and an enhanced capacity to cope effectively with adversity and with aging. (See Tony and Helga Noice et al and Barbara Bagan et al.)

Creativity is pleasurable. It feels good to be immersed in what we love, to discover and share a new way of doing something, to create beauty, to find an unorthodox route around an obstacle, or to address an important need in an unexpected or humorous manner.

And creativity is therapeutic. Engaging in creative expression of any sort helps release and transform negative emotions, stimulates new learning and discovery, and supports emotional well-being and physical health. Gerontologist and psychiatrist George Vaillant points out that creativity promotes resilience. At a physical and psychological level, humans are endowed with self-righting tendencies that promote healing and recovery from illness, trauma, and other adversity, and creative expression is one of these.2

Creativity also encourages a sense of wonder and delight, which is a trend in late-life development. Jungian analyst Allan Chinen writes, “Creativity and a sense of wonder are two of the most endearing traits in children . . . [and] reclaiming the wonder and creativity of childhood is a task of later life . . . The return of wonder often emerges as a delight in nature . . . [and] enjoyment of the present moment, just as it is . . . The reclamation of childhood delight is actually the fruit of maturation.”3

Couple doing the tango

Gene Cohen’s work as a gerontologist led him to conclude that late-life creativity has numerous benefits for elders as well as those around them. He writes: “Creativity allows us to alter our experience of problems and sometimes to transcend them . . . We feel better when we are able to view our circumstances with fresh perspective and express ourselves with some creativity. . . . [and that] makes us more emotionally resilient and better able to cope with life’s adversity and losses . . . Creative expression typically fosters feelings that can improve outlook and a sense of well-being [which] have a beneficial effect on the functioning of our immune system and our overall health.”4

Even more importantly, says Cohen, to be creatively engaged in the winter of life serves the whole human family by providing a valuable model of what is possible with age, for younger generations and for society as a whole. “The effect is a boon for [all] generations: the younger adult learns firsthand about achieving a more satisfying aging experience, and the older adult remains engaged in the circle of relationship and emotional intimacy that strengthens connections to others and [the] richness of life.”5

Enjoying Art

And we need not be actively creating to receive the benefits of art. Research by James Aw, Koenraad Cuypers, and others suggests that elders who engage in the enjoyment of others’ art (whether music, poetry, painting, theater, or other forms) typically experience higher levels of life satisfaction, physical health, sensory competency, and cognitive functioning. Being an appreciator is an undervalued but vital role in the arts, one that often becomes more appealing as we grow older and find joy in supporting emerging artists.

Many communities have affordable opportunities for enjoying opera and other musical events, theater, poetry, and various visual arts. Consult the entertainment section of your local newspaper or radio station, contact the community service section of your local college, or use the internet to find events that call to you and check them out. Invite a friend to go with you, or go alone (you might meet a new one).

 

Endnotes

1Nakamura, Jeanne and Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Creativity in Later Life,” in Sawyer et al., Creativity and Development, 186–216.

2Vaillant, George. The Wisdom of the Ego, 284.

3Chinen, Allan. “The Return of Wonder,” in Generations 15, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 45–48.

4Cohen, Gene. Creative Age, 11.

5Cohen, Gene. Creative Age, 11, 12.

Suggested Resources for Cultivating Creativity

Ackermann, Diane: Deep Play

Cameron, Julia: It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again

Chinen, Allan: In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life, especially pp. 1-7, 95-103, 129-137.

Cohen, Gene: The Creative Age

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola: The Creative Fire (audio CD)

Malchiodi, Cathy: The Soul’s Palette

Phillips, Jan: Marry Your Muse

Richards, Ruth (editor): Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human Nature

Sadler, William: The Third Age: Six Principles for Growth and Renewal After Forty

Early studies of creativity focused almost entirely on the extraordinary achievements of exceptional people like Mozart and Einstein, which led to the view that it is a rare quality, reserved for a talented few. More recent study by Ruth Richards and others has broadened our understanding of creativity to include experiences of discovery and originality that occur in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (Everyday Creativity). Almost any meaningful activity that involves exploration, discovery, and some kind of expression can be considered creative.

Creativity and ingenuity seem to be most at home in the very young and the old. The trajectory of creativity across the life span resembles a U-shaped curve, starting high in infancy and early childhood, descending for decades, rising in middle adulthood, and reaching new heights in the winter of life. In fact, many have identified later life as a time of optimal creativity.

Senior Sculptor Sculpting With Chisel And Hammer In Stone Outdoo

Psychologist Dean Simonton, for example, writes, “Empirical research actually suggests that creative productivity can undergo a substantial renaissance in the final years, especially toward life’s close. . . . Some time after the late sixties a resurgence in output often appears . . . (contradicting) the supposed inevitability of the downhill slide.”

Gerontologist Gene Cohen concurs. His book, The Creative Age, is filled with examples of creativity in the later lives of public figures like Maria Ann Smith, who developed the Granny Smith apple in her seventh decade, and Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who began her career as a painter at age sixty-eight because her arthritis became too painful for her to continue supporting herself doing embroidery. (“Grandma Moses” continued painting until she was 101.) Even more inspiring are Cohen’s stories of ordinary people whose creativity is expressed in widely varying ways in the winter of life.

Developmental Trends That Support Late-Life Creativity

Physical changes in the winter of life such as declining eyesight and hearing may challenge some dimensions of creativity, yet it is the nature of the creative spirit to seek and find unusual ways around and through obstacles. And as gerontologist Paul Baltes points out, in later life we become more skillful at compensating for losses and maximizing our strengths when faced with an obstacle or challenge.

Research also suggests that cognitive loss in the winter of life is far less pronounced than previously thought, and some late-life cognitive developments actually enhance our capacity for creativity. For example, accumulated knowledge and practical intelligence increase with age. In addition, as Gene Cohen points out in The Mature Mind, thinking typically becomes more holistic and nuanced (and thus more creative) as we age. For many in later life, reason-based, either/or thinking gives way to post-formal thought, which integrates feeling and thinking and enhances our ability to see situations from many perspectives and to entertain multiple solutions to perplexing problems.

Older Woman Painting

Other developmental trends – increasing courage, a growing capacity to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, and deepening trust in oneself and in something bigger than oneself – also support creativity in later life. Creative leaps of all kinds (in art and in the art of living) entail jumping into the unknown—again and again. For many, the awareness of having a limited number of years left increases the courageous willingness to take meaningful risks.

With age, we also grow more comfortable in our own skin and learn to trust what we know in our bones. At the same time, aging opens the door to a more-than-personal sense of who we are. Feeling connected to something beyond our personality, we learn, over time, to cooperate with and to trust it. Whether we understand it as intuition, the deep Self, the unconscious, the Muse, Spirit, or a mystery, creativity requires being open, attentive, and obedient to it. For example, Beethoven—though deaf—was known to hear entire symphonies in his imagination, which he then transcribed. And when the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was asked where he got the ideas for his novels, he replied, “I don’t ‘get’ the ideas—they ‘get’ me.”

Benefits of Creative Engagement in Later Life

Numerous studies in psychology, gerontology, and the arts have shown that creative engagement in activities we enjoy has a number of benefits and is strongly related to physical health and emotional well-being, a sense of meaning and purpose, and an enhanced capacity to cope effectively with adversity and with aging. More on the benefits of late life creativity will appear in a subsequent blog.

Suggested Reading

Cohen, Gene. The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Cohen, Gene. The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. New York: Basic Books, 2005, especially pp. 38–39, 98–101.

Richards, Ruth, ed. Everyday Creativity and New Views of Human Nature: Psychological, Social, and Spiritual Perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007.

Simonton, Dean. “Age and Outstanding Achievement: What Do We Know after a Century of Research?Psychological Bulletin 104, no. 2 (1988): 251–67.

November 13 (next Tuesday) is the day humankind has set aside to remember the importance of kindness and to make an extra effort to treat one another with gentleness and understanding. World Kindness Day was established in Tokyo in 1998 by representatives of kindness organizations from around the world and is currently observed in 28 nations. This year, when incivility and even hostility are so prevalent in our own country and elsewhere, doing what we can to reestablish kindness as a social norm is especially important.

Prok Village, Nepal, Kind Man

Kindness is Contagious

How we treat other people has a profound effect on everyone involved. Research shows that when someone extends kindness to us, we are more likely to extend it to others. Even witnessing an act of kindness between two other people makes it more likely that we will be kinder in our subsequent interactions with others. Sadly, incivility and cruelty are also socially transmitted, and how we treat one another has serious consequences, for good or for ill.

There are dozens of opportunities each day in which we can choose to extend kindness to others – smiling or saying “good morning” to strangers we pass in the street, reaching out to a friend we know has been struggling with something difficult, listening carefully in conversations and then responding thoughtfully, choosing to let go of resentment (rather than nursing a grudge), responding to another’s hurtful behavior by pausing and trying to understand what might be going on for him or her (rather than passing judgment or reacting with a harsh or hurtful remark), or simply remembering to ask rather than demand and to say “please” and “thank you.”

Portrait Senior Kind Woman

Kindness in Later Life

A number of late-life trends enhance our capacity for extending kindness and understanding. For example, long years tend to broaden our perspective, enabling us to see situations from many points of view, rather than insisting that our perception of a situation is right and others are wrong. And as we age, the amygdale – the seat of the fight-or-flight response – begins to mellow. We become less reactive (especially to negative stimuli) and are more likely, under stress, to respond with acceptance, understanding, or humor, rather than with blame or aggression (emotional mastery).

With age we typically grow more comfortable in our own skin, more a accepting of ourselves including our foibles, and thus more empathic and tolerant toward others. Research suggests that empathy and compassion are especially high in older women who have a history of finding a way through adversity in their own life.

With age, we also tend to become less concerned with ourselves and our personal agenda and more aware of the interconnectedness and preciousness of all life. A growing sense of kinship with other people and species (gerotranscendence)  makes us more altruistic and magnanimous (willing to forebear and forgive rather than take offense and return tit for tat). One of the traditional roles of the elder is to bless the young, and one of the greatest blessings we can bestow is kindness.

The Science and Spirituality of Kindness

Recent research suggests what spiritual traditions have taught for millennia, namely that kindness and compassion are essential for our own well being and for the thriving (and survival) of our species.

The Dalai Lama, for example, explains: “No matter how much violence or how many bad things we have to go through, I believe that the ultimate solution to our conflicts, both internal and external, lies in returning to our basic underlying human nature which is gentle and compassionate.”

And in The Compassionate Instinct, Dacher Keltner and his coauthors summarize the findings of a wide range of recent studies in neuroscience, evolution, psychology, and other fields. “Research suggests that compassionate behavior not only exemplifies a good, moral way to live, but carries great emotional and physical health benefits for compassionate people, their families, and their communities. . . . Behaviors like compassion and kindness are actually conducive to human survival—and essential to human flourishing.”

Sources and Resources

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009, p. 56

Keltner, Darcher, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith, eds. The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, p. 6.

I also recommend these two books about kindness and the joy that flows from it: The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and A Year of Living Kindly by Donna Cameron.

And for more on World Kindness Day and ways to spread kindness, visit these links:
https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/ (Contains new training materials including Cultivating Resilience through Kindness, a manual for classroom teachers)
https://www.awarenessdays.com/awareness-days-calendar/world-kindness-day-2018

At this time of year in many places around the world, human beings celebrate the continuity of life in the midst of death and honor those who have died. For example, in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, many are observing the days of the dead (Dia de los Muertos), remembering departed friends and family by creating small altars (ofrendas), offering prayers in support of their continuing spiritual journey, and inviting their spirits to visit with colorful parades and decorated gravesites.

Today is also Samhain (Saw-win) in the Celtic wheel of life – the midway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter’s solstice, that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the “darker portion” of the year. Samhain is balanced by Beltane in May, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, that celebrates the planting of new seeds and ushers in the lighter half of the year. Both of these transitional times are regarded as numinous (holy) and as essential to the eternal turning of the wheel of life. The Maiden was honored at Beltane and the wise woman (Crone), at Samhain.

Portrait Of A Senior Woman Outdoors

The contemporary Halloween image of the witch or old woman  as wicked is a distortion of a more ancient view among the Celts and other early peoples who saw Her as creator and destroyer, protector and instiller of fear, and as an essential part of the never-ending cycles of birth-life-death-rebirth. In West Africa, for example, Asase-Yaa is the Mother of Life and Death, and many still worship Old Woman Earth as womb and tomb. She is the source of all life, the place to which her children return at death, and the womb from which they are later reborn.

As the midwife of life and death, the ancient and powerful Thracian goddess Hecate also played a variety of vital roles in birth, death, and in between. She swept the threshold to protect the newborn and accompanied each person to the underworld at the time of death. She typically appeared on back roads, especially where three paths meet, holding a lantern or torch to guide wanderers, as well as the key to the underworld and a knife for cutting away the superfluous. Hecate also sat alongside kings as they rendered judgment and assisted mortals and lesser deities who were unjustly caught in the crossfire of inter-deity conflict. In her varied roles, Hecate exemplifies purposeful fierceness coexisting with protection, guidance, and wisdom.

smiling elderly woman

The honoring of the old woman at Samhain seems most appropriate in that authentic power, protection of the vulnerable, wise discernment, clear focus, courage, and necessary fierceness (tempered by compassion and wisdom) are all qualities that tend to ripen with age and help make the elder a reliable guide in times of transition and loss.

Earlier blogs have addressed the late-life capacity for focusing on what matters most and letting go of the rest (Letting Go and Savoring) and the deepening ability to remain peaceful in the face of turmoil (Peace Amidst Conflict). Others have explored the Grace of Authenticity (Coming Home to Ourselves), of Self-Transcending Generosity (Aging into the Web of Life), and The Grace of Necessary Fierceness. These and other late-life gifts lend us the strength, willingness, and wisdom to navigate the darker times in our own life and to assist others in finding a way through theirs, when appropriate.

Note: Although the honoring the dead occurs each year in virtually every culture, some of these celebrations occur earlier in the year in mid-summer or early fall, for example in Nepal, Japan, and Cambodia. To learn more check out these articles:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/festivals-dead-around-world-180953160

https://urnabios.com/festivals-that-honor-the-dead-around-world/

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