What Keeps You Going?

My husband just turned 77 this month and he is still working full time, my 75 year old step-father still works at various money making ventures including his profession as a Chiropractor and my 86 year old grandfather, who officially retired more than 20 years ago, still works harder than most people I know even with his daily catnap. I have spoken to my husband several times over the last couple of years about whether or not he has any desire to retire yet and he continues to tell me “No, not yet.”  What keeps them going when all three of them could sit back, not work and “enjoy” their lives? Or is it the “keeping going” that “keeps them going?”

I know, for my husband, he definitely doesn’t want to sit at home and wait for me to get home from work. He doesn’t have a bunch of hobbies that he participates in or really too many regular friends around where we live now so I think work is his hobby and where his social interactions and friendships take place. With my step-dad and my grandfather they just both have always been busy with work, friends, fishing, chores, golf and other activities that keep them active and engaged.

I was inspired by a recent New York Times Magazine article “Old Masters at the Top of Their Game” with interviews by Camille Sweeney who spoke to several of the 70 and 80 plus active artists, writers, business people and one supreme court judge about why they are still working;

I loved this comment from Frederick Wiseman the filmmaker who is 84 about being in  denial about his age and how useful that is to him;

“Early on, did you ever think you’d still be making movies at your age?
I didn’t think about it at all. I have a hard time recognizing that I’m 84, almost 85. I’m in complete denial, which I think is extremely useful. Of course from time to time I allow myself to be aware of it, but it’s not something that I dwell on. I like working. I work very intensely.”

The amazing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is 81 had this response when asked about what has been the most surprising thing about her 80’s;

Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’”

And this one, from the wonderful actor Christopher Plummer who is 84 and the oldest actor to win an Academy Award, when asked what besides staying in shape past a certain age is important;

“…..so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.”

And this answer, from the great architect Frank Gehry who is 85, about what has changed the most for him about his work since turning 80 made me laugh out loud;

Buildings take seven years from the time you’re hired until you’re finished. There’s always that pause in my mind now when we get a new project. And then I think about it for a few minutes, and I say: ‘‘Ah, screw it! Full speed ahead.’’”

I love it, “Screw it, Full speed ahead” that is what life should be – get out there, do it and don’t let anything deter you from doing what you love, having fun and creating things.

Another recent article in the New York Times by Bruce Grierson “What if Age is Nothing But a Mind-Set?  got me thinking about some similar territory. The story looked at the work of Harvard Professor Ellen Langer, who has done dozens upon dozens of studies about how the mind affects the body, including idea’s about how it feels and heals. A study that she conducted in the early 80’s, the Counterclockwise study, looked to reverse some of the effects aging was having on a group of generally healthy 70 something men;

“…eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment…”

They were asked to “inhabit their younger selves” during the stay, to make a psychological attempt to be the persons they were two decades earlier and they were treated like they were younger with expectations for taking care of things for themselves. They were tested on several things prior to the study and then again after the study;

“At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.””

The study has been “replicated” for reality T.V. purposes a few times, including “The Young Ones,” a BBC documentary that sought to recreate the experiment (Professor Langer was a consultant) with six aging former celebrities and showed similar results as the study.

The power of positive thinking or positive psychology or the placebo effect have all been shown to help many people live better, but this experiment with some hotel house keepers was even more interesting;

“A few years earlier, Langer and one of her students, Alia Crum, conducted a study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involving 84 hotel chambermaids. The maids had mostly reported that they didn’t get much exercise in a typical week. The researchers primed the experimental group to think differently about their work by informing them that cleaning rooms was fairly serious exercise — as much if not more than the surgeon general recommends. Once their expectations were shifted, those maids lost weight, relative to a control group (and also improved on other measures like body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio). All other factors were held constant. The only difference was the change in mind-set.

Critics hunted for other explanations — statistical errors or subtle behavior changes in the weight-loss group that Langer hadn’t accounted for. Otherwise the outcome seemed to defy physics. “To which I would say, ‘There’s no discipline that is complete,’ ” Langer responds. “If current-day physics can’t explain these things, maybe there are changes that need to be made in physics.””

The housekeepers were primed to think differently about their work and it seems to have had a pretty powerful effect on them.  I have not read the study to understand the full details, but now I want to know more. I love this stuff when it is used to help people be better and do better, but I also hate it when it’s used by advertisers to manipulate me into buying something and I know that does happen all the time.

The article also taught me a new word, “nocebo” and it’s described as the opposite of placebo, as in “the placebo effect”;

“The nocebo effect is the flip side of the more positive placebo effect, and she says that one of the most pernicious nocebo effects can occur when a patient is informed by her doctor that she is ill. The diagnosis itself, Langer says, primes the symptoms the patient expects to feel. “You change a word here or there, and you get vastly different results,””

This definitely hit me, but more from the aspect of how my environment effects me. I work in, at times, a very negative place; customers are negative about my very existence (I’m a public servant), most of the interactions with people are about negative things and complaints and my co-workers tend to be very, very negative about work and this I believe is influencing how I look at and respond to the world. I think I am generally a positive person with an attitude that almost anything can be fixed, relationship repaired, error corrected and people taught; but some days I find that everything I think and many of the things I say are negative and in direct contrast to that positive attitude.  And I really notice it once I get home and away from the workplace; I recognize how I was speaking or reacting to a situation that normally would not get me upset.

I will have to work up my own experiment to conduct in my workplace to see if I can turn the tide of negativity with some positive psychology or maybe a placebo Prozac for everyone in the building.

I will leave you with a lovely quote from the “Old Masters at the Top of Their Game” article from naturalist and writer T.H. White;

““You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.””

What keeps you going?