2002- July

July-Aug, 2002 Issue 15

The Positive Aging Newsletter

July-August, 2002

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Issue No 15

In This Issue:



Normally we devote the commentary section to new developments in research, theory or practice. However, our commentary in the preceding Newsletter provoked sufficient reaction that revisiting seems in order. In that Newsletter we described research reviewing all available studies on the relationship between self-ratings of physical well-being over the latter years of life. As the evidence indicated, in spite of physical decline as defined medically, there is little decrement in people’s subjective feelings of physical well-being. More broadly, such data are consistent with findings suggesting that in spite of significant physical loss, people are capable of reconstructing their lives in highly fulfilling ways.

While some readers provided excellent examples of such resilience, others spoke of the significant hurdles to well-being created by physical suffering. One reader spoke of the intense physical and spiritual energy required to sustain the sense of a “good life” in the face of painful and debilitating illnesses. Over time this reader gained some control over his illnesses, and that is another story. However, he concludes, “While we can experience joy in living despite whatever deterioration from aging we are experiencing, it is clearly much easier to do so if living a healthful aging lifestyle.” Surely this is a good point. However, given significant variations in the success with which people face physical deficits, the major question becomes: What are the significant processes and practices enabling people to achieve a sense of well-being despite physical handicaps? Here both research and grass-roots sharing could be enormously helpful.

To illustrate, let me report a single example drawn from personal experience since the last Newsletter. While on a speaking engagement thousands of miles from home, I was struck with a painful ailment of uncertain origin. I was soon shuttled home for tests and what turned out to be a painful regimen of activity. All obligations were cancelled. At the outset, my “problem” seemed all-consuming; questions of what, how serious, how long were interspersed with difficulties in daily functioning. However, within several days a distinct change occurred. In terms drawn from classic social psychology I would describe it as a shift in comparison level. I began to evaluate the day in terms of immediate gains and losses, and not by the standards of optimal health. I began to appreciate very simple things; small improvements were causes for celebration. In addition, there was the discovery of new alternatives. For example, I found a special joy in slowing the pace and having ample time for family, friends, reading and writing. Shifts in comparison level and in the domain of appreciation are only two helpful routes to resilience. Research and health care practices may vitally expand our understanding of such possibilities.

Ken Gergen



Theory and research in life-span development provide especially rich resources for seeing the positive potentials of aging. In the present study, researchers considered the possibility that various components of personality were enhanced through the aging process. In particular, they reasoned that one’s sense of identity might become more certain as one aged. Doubts and misgivings might give way to a secure and acceptable sense of who one is in the world. Earlier views of Erik Erikson indicated that “Generativity,” that is the desire and ability to care for others in the world, as well as “Confident Power”, characterized by feelings of mastery and competence, would peak in middle age and then decline. However, with the improved life conditions of contemporary elders, this decline may be attenuated.

To study these issues, researchers gave personality surveys to three groups of women, in their twenties, forties, and sixties in order to assess changes in various components of personality. The participants were college-educated, primarily white and middle class. Five personality traits were evaluated: Identity Certainty, Generativity, Confident Power, Concern with Aging, and Personal Distress.

The researchers found that Identity Certainty, Confident Power, and Concern with Aging were all higher in the 40’s than in the 20’s, and higher in the 60’s than in the 40’s. Generativity was higher in the 40’s than in the 20’s, but did not diminish in the 60’s, as Erikson’s theory would have predicted. Personal Distress was higher for women in their 20’s than in the other two groups. (It seems that being a young woman in today’s world is no “picnic.”) As the researchers concluded: “Contrary to some popular and psychological perceptions of aging, a concern with issues about growing older does not dominate personality [among these 60-year-old women]. In fact, positive factors, such as increased certainty about one’s identity, high levels of generativity, and a sense of power, characterize the 60’s for these women.”

From: College-educated women’s personality development in adulthood: Perceptions and age differences by Alyssa N. Zucker, Joan M. Ostrove, & Abigail J. Stewart. Psychology & Aging, 2002, 17, 236-244.

Related article: Review — “Defy Aging”


While much research indicates a decline in certain (but not all) intellectual abilities with age, there are also enormous variations in trajectory: some decline, while others do not. Clearly it is important to locate those factors promoting sustained ability. The present study sheds some light on the subject. Here researchers were interested in the contribution of education and wealth to sustaining cognitive functioning.

In this cross-sectional study of approximately 7,000 people, cognitive functioning was measured with tests of memory, of information, and of orientation. As examples, respondents were asked to begin at 100 and subtract 7 for five trials, to recognize and name a “cactus” and”scissors,” as well as to give the day and the date. Education was measured in years of schooling completed. Wealth was measured by assets data and income. Health-measures were taken, but seemed to have no relationship to intellectual capacity.

Results indicated that education had a strong positive correlation with cognitive ability. There were no differences between women and men, nor among most racial/ethnic groups. Income and net worth had a weaker relationship with cognitive abilities than educational level. For”whites” wealth made a difference beyond that of the other groups. The researchers concluded that the educational process itself is important in helping people lead long, mentally active lives. They suggest that more years of education lead to a greater lifelong tendency to seek out intellectual stimulation. These results are not class-specific; rather people of all social classes and ethnicities benefit intellectually when they are able to stay in school. For some groups wealth may play some role, particularly when it allows enough leisure time to explore one’s curiosities. Perhaps with retirement such time becomes available to most PEOPLE.

From: Education, wealth, and cognitive function in later life by Kathleen A. Cagney & Diane S. Lauderdale. Journal of Gerontology, Psychological Sciences, 2002, 57B, P163-172.

Related article: Leisure Activities Help the Brain Stay Sharp


The present study extends recent explorations into the effects of laughter on physical well-being. In this case the researchers demonstrate that when people are told that they will see a humorous video in one hour, they rate their moods as higher than before this information was available. Indeed, their mood states increase to the point that they equal the states obtained by watching the humorous video itself. These findings suggest that anticipation/expectation of “fun” may itself serve as a mood enhancer. More generally these findings contribute to a broader vision of a “biology of hope.” As described in earlier Newsletters, recovery from many chronic disorders or surgical procedures seems to be enhanced by optimism and the anticipation of positive experiences. Presumably, if therapies directed towards wellness and recovery from chronic diseases can incorporate positive expectation of future events, the resultant changes may not only 1) contribute to beneficial positive mood state changes; but also, 2) modify important biological/chemical mediators that optimize immune responses; 3) diminish stress-related molecules and inflammatory mediators; and in total 4) potentially contribute to the prevention and healing processes.

From: The Anticipation of a Laughter Eustress Event Modulates Mood States Prior to the Actual Humor Experience by L.S. Berk, D.L. Felten, & J. Westengard from the University of California Medical School at Irvine, and the Loma Linda School of Medicine. This report was written for laypersons and can be found on the following website:

Related article: It pays to be cheerful


 – AGING WELL: SURPRISING GUIDEPOSTS TO A HAPPIER LIFE, BY George E. Vaillant. Boston, Little, Brown, 2002. We excerpt and edit from a review by Margo A. Denke, M.D., published in the July issue of the New England Review of Medicine:

In Aging Well, Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, George Vaillant takes the definition of aging as a period of grace and wisdom to a new level. Using a unique data base of standardized interviews exploring the psychological health of nearly 700 men beginning in 1939, he investigates whether important and potentially destructive situations in youth (e.g., disinterested or abusive parents or poverty) affect the psychological makeup of adults. Each participant was extensively reexamined at five-year intervals, allowing the assessment to evolve as individual development proceeded. The primary focus of the book is the characterization of healthy men and women in their 70s and older.

The book presents astonishing observations that do not always fit social myths:

– Unfortunate circumstances in youth do not doom a person to an unhappy adulthood: “What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong.”
– Friendships with younger persons enhance the enjoyment of old age; these successful friendships are not so-called relationships in which the elderly are coddled by the young. Instead, the elderly give more than they take… Successfully aging women enrich the lives of younger people by sharing current experiences with them.

A few observations add to the already overwhelming evidence that certain factors are associated with a healthy lifestyle. Cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse are more than bad habits; they destroy us. Exercise improves our ability to enjoy life.

The style of the book is enjoyable. Carefully chosen cases are used to illustrate the technical points. The tendency toward simplicity is studiously avoided…Although we all have anecdotal experience that aging can be fun, this book provides a longitudinal assessment of the factors that will permit us to age well. Aging well is giving to others. It is accepting our limitations with humor and dignity. It is cultivating sparks of interest into our own eternal flame.

– LEARNING TO BE OLD by Margaret Cruikshank, Boston: Rowan Littlefield, (2001).

We were alerted to this book because of its optimistic orientation to aging. Cruikshank sees one of the challenges of aging — and indeed for the society in general — as overcoming the negative stereotypes that hamper human development. She also emphasizes the multiple ways and means of enriching our lives. Although written primarily for women, Cruikshank’s suggestions for ways of avoiding some the pitfalls of aging and opening new opportunities, are applicable to all. Among the provocative chapter titles are: Sickness and Other Social Roles of the Old, Prescribed Busyness and Spirituality, and Gerastology: A Feminist’s View of Gerontology and Women’s Aging. The author says that her book”falls somewhere in the large space between practical guides to aging and theoretical work. I have attempted to bring together matters usually treated separately — health, politics, the humanities, feminist gerontology, and cultural analysis…My motivation for writing this book is the belief that neither gerontology nor women’s studies has really come to grips with the fact that most of the old are women.” Margaret Cruikshank is a lecturer in women’s studies and a faculty associate of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. The book is available at http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com

– OUR TURN, OUR TIME: WOMEN TRULY COMING OF AGE, Edited by Cynthia Black, Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing (2000)

The authors of this book are winners of a national writing contest for women over 50. The goal of their texts was to celebrate their passage into the second half of life. Their essays are filled with wit, wisdom, humor and compassion; they include turmoil as well as triumphs. The authors include editors, athletes, activists, priests, professors, and most are also lovers, wives, and mothers. An octogenarian describes herself as “a competitive racewalker.” One calls herself a “Pilgrim, wife, mother, grandmother, green witch, neophyte crone, mostly vegetarian, Buddheo-Christian, ecofeminist, and Creatrix of whimsy, mayhem, ritual, and laughter.” Some favorite titles include: “Out of the Grandstand and onto the Field,” “Sexy at Seventy,” and “Girl Groups in Graceland.” One essay tells us, “I’ve always thought of retirement as a time to do something really well,” and another ends, “If we are open and willing, all of our life’s experiences will lead us to just where we need to be.”


 More Adult Education Connections:

– U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education:
– Ohio State University’s ERIC Clearinghouse:
– American Association for Adult and Continuing Education:


 – Henry Simmons writes of his appreciation for the newsletter, and suggests that many readers might also be interested in an on-line Bibliography on Religion, Spirituality, and Aging:

– Anthony L. Suchman, MD, writes of a new initiative: Living Dialogue on Health and Care. The Valeo Initiative is a coalition of people and organizations who aspire, in the words of Jonas Salk, “to create an epidemic of health.” To stimulate that epidemic, Valeo is launching a national appreciative inquiry intended to inspire people to think and act constructively about the ways they can influence their own health, the care they receive and the health of their communities. Over the course of the next two years, Valeo plans to reach thousands of Americans through Living Dialogue Workshops around the country. They plan to include people of all ages, races and economic status. They would very much appreciate suggestions as to funding sources for this project. More information on the Valeo initiative can be found at: http://www.valeoinitiative.org


 – SAGE-ING WORKSHOP: “Life Experiences to Heal Ourselves and the World” (Aug. 10-11, 2002, Winter Park, FL).
2-Day Intensive Weekend Program, Winter Park. Workshop geared towards elders, boomers planning their retirement years, and professionals in the fields of human services. Presenters: Alison Issen (Sage-ing Center) and Paulette Geller (Miller Center for Older Adult Services).
For more information call (407) 629-5771 or email at AIssen@wphf.org

– AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION CONVENTION. Chicago, Aug. 22-25. Will feature numerous contributions to aging and adult development, especially as sponsored by Division 20.
For more information see: http://www.apa.org

– AARP: LIFE @ 50+ : A CELEBRATION OF YOU – Three days of entertainment, exhibitions, seminars, sessions, expert advice on topics ranging from staying healthy to financial planning to consumer fraud. Tours of the zoo, Sea World, Birch Aquarium included. Guests include James Earl Jones, Dr. Art Ulene, Tony Bennett, Patti LaBelle, Dana Carvey San Diego Sept 12-14, 2002.
For more information: http://www.aarp.org/events
Register online or call 1-800-883-2784


If you have material you wish to offer to newsletter readers, please write to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

July 1, 2002 12:00 am