During my career I’ve occasionally come across people who seem to defy age, with endless energy and the kind of robust good health that contrasts vividly with their peers.
What sets them apart is not just biological — it’s measured in psychological terms, too: they seem to have an eternally youthful outlook without being naive or ignorant, seeing life for what it is — a big adventure.
As far as their approach to life is concerned, they often seem to have more in common with people decades younger. And this is the key — being a real super-ager isn’t just about ensuring you are as physically fit as possible.
Youthful glow: Ageing well isn’t just physical – it’s also about your psychological approach
More than anything, it’s about your attitude to life. Professor Emily Rogalski, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago — who researches super-agers — describes them as having a ‘unique personality profile, highlighting optimism, resilience and perseverance’.
But these qualities can be learned and developed by anyone. Here are ten key super-ager characteristics to emulate . . .
DEVELOP A PASSION
I’ve often been struck how when I ask old people about their lives, the more dynamic ones rarely mention the job they did — or if they do, it’s relatively fleeting.
They tend to talk about specific events in their life — adventures they had, things they did and what they like doing now. They almost always have hobbies or interests they’re passionate about.
Cultivate new hobbies and interests: Too many of us define ourselves by our work. When that goes — when we retire — many are left bereft
Too many of us define ourselves by our work. When that goes — when we retire — many are left bereft. I think the reason rates of death and ill health peak after retirement is because people feel lost because the thing they ‘were’ has now gone, and this puts the body and mind under considerable strain.
By all means have a fulfilling job, but remember not to make this the sole focus in your life. You are more than just your career.
CHOOSE A FORM OF EXERCISE YOU LOVE
I used to be surprised when older people would tell me ‘oh no, I don’t exercise’. ‘But you look so fit and healthy,’ I’d exclaim.
They’d then explain that although they didn’t exercise, they did swim every day, or play golf, or tennis, or walk the dog — all of which is, of course, exercise.
What’s interesting is that even though they were exercising a great deal, they never thought of it as exercise. Exercise is boring and a chore, whereas they did things they enjoyed and loved.
Enjoy yourself: The trick is not to exercise for the sake of exercising, because it’s nearly impossible to keep this up with any regularity, and you resent it
The trick is not to exercise for the sake of exercising, because it’s nearly impossible to keep this up with any regularity, and you resent it.
Instead, find a form of exercise you love and do it lots and lots.
Although it doesn’t feel like exercise, your mind and body are still benefiting.
DON’T FEEL BAD ABOUT YOUR LIFE
This is the curse of modern life. Social media has fuelled our obsession with comparing ourselves to others and it’s a sure-fire route to feeling bitter, resentful and unhappy.
It drains your lifeforce and is the antithesis of the optimism and joie de vivre that characterise youth. These feelings also release stress hormones such as cortisol, which put the body under extra strain and increases the risk of problems such as heart attack and stroke.
Someone will always earn more, have more material possessions or be more attractive. Super-agers take a relaxed, philosophical approach — happy at others’ good fortune but satisfied and content with their lot in life.
They also know material possessions don’t make you happy, so why care if others have more? And that you can never know what’s truly going on in someone else’s life, so it’s pointless comparing your life with theirs.
GO OUT AND LEARN NEW THINGS
Super-agers are always on the go. It’s how they keep their minds so active. They rarely hang around the house.
You don’t have to go trekking in the Himalayas, but you need to get up and out as often as you can.
Far better to sit in a coffee shop, park or library reading a book than doing it at home.
Getting out of the house is how you meet people, connect with others, keep learning — which is what keeps the brain active and your mind young.
CULL TOXIC FRIENDS
Certain friends just aren’t good for us. Most of us have at least one friend who drags us down, makes us feel inferior. Similarly some friends make us feel frustrated, used and angry because we feel they don’t really value us and we can’t rely on them.
People who age well don’t keep these people in their lives — you, too, should get rid of them. Do it gently, but if someone doesn’t make your life fun and is a drag, it’s time to let go. Friendships take work and energy, don’t waste it.
Ditch them! Most of us have at least one friend who drags us down, makes us feel inferior
If you surround yourself with fun-loving people, it’s hard not to view your life that way. The other trick super-agers seem to have is to be friends with people of all ages and all walks of life. They don’t limit themselves by age group.
You’ll find more in common with a 20-year-old who has the same hobby than someone of your generation where all you share is your age.
GET OUT THERE AND VOLUNTEER
It’s a cliche that when people retire, they volunteer. But every super-ager I’ve come across does. And many don’t wait till they retire. They are the ones who are helping others, yet rarely view it this way — they think life is all about rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in.
It contributes to that super-ager mentality and approach to life — and takes your mind off your own troubles and helps you feel proud of yourself (it also lets you meet new people and stay active).
I remember visiting a nursing home and meeting this elderly woman in the office. I assumed she was a patient until she explained she was a volunteer. ‘I like to try to help the old people,’ she said: ‘I run errands and pop to the shops if they need anything’.
She was 81 but was such a super-ager it hadn’t occurred to her that the people she was helping were actually her contemporaries or younger.
TAKE AN INTEREST IN HOW YOU LOOK
This is not about being narcissistic or vain.
Super-agers rarely exhibit these sorts of traits. They do, however, make the most of themselves, dressing smartly, looking presentable and not letting standards slip.
Looking good: Someone who’s made an effort to look nice sends a clear message they’re worth making an effort for and people respond positively
Someone who’s made an effort to look nice sends a clear message they’re worth making an effort for and people respond positively.
It also changes how you feel about yourself — you’ll feel more confident which will mean you feel able to take on new challenges. I’ve never met a dowdy or badly dressed super-ager.
WAYS TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE
How many of us just allow life to happen? We feel like powerless agents in our own lives, with no sense of direction or control. Remember, most of the plans you make will never come to anything — they are dreams. But that doesn’t matter. Making plans, having dreams and making active choices in your life means you are really living.
The super-agers I’ve come across are the sorts who’ve packed in jobs they didn’t like, or even moved countries to pursue a dream.
It might not work out how you’d imagined, but chalk it up to experience and change it again.
It doesn’t always have to be big things. Make an active choice about an aspect of your life every day, even if it’s switching off the TV to read that novel you’ve been meaning to get through for ages.
SAY ‘YES’ MORE OFTEN
I remember meeting a lady in her 80s who had a busier life than I did. Far from slowing down as she got older, she had become busier.
Her approach was to say yes to pretty much everything — ‘when you say yes, you can always change your mind and say, actually, no thank you’, she told me.
Shake it up: The super-agers I’ve come across are the sorts who’ve packed in jobs they didn’t like, or even moved countries to pursue a dream
‘If you start with a no, you’ve closed that path for good’. Again, it’s about challenging your brain — the key to keeping it young.
SEE A THERAPIST
Only a few of the really extraordinary oldies that I’ve come across have had psychotherapy, probably because when they were young it wasn’t as common as it is now.
Despite this, I’ve been struck by how they all exhibit the kind of skills taught in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) anyway.
Therapy: It helps you approach problems in a more constructive way and teaches you to watch out for tricks your mind plays on you
This is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviours and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems.
It’s usually used to treat psychological problems such as depression, but the key skills are applicable to many areas of life. It helps you approach problems in a more constructive way and teaches you to watch out for tricks your mind plays on you that makes you focus on negative things rather than the more positive. It teaches you to think more like a super-ager.
So, if you struggle to adopt those super-ager qualities of positivity, resilience and perseverance, consider CBT.
You can find a CBT therapist in your area on the BABCP website (babcp.co.uk) or try a good CBT self-help book, such as Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.