Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute of Psychotherapy. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her 28 years’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity. —Ed.
“The fears of aging have been one long cascading domino effect through the years: twenty year-olds dread thirty; forty year-olds fear fifty; sixty fears seventy, and so it goes,” notes the publisher of Lighter as We Go; Virtues, Charter Strengths, and Aging, a heartening book on successful aging by two respected therapists. Psychologist Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D., 50, and psychiatrist Jimmie Holland, M.D., 85, assure us, through personal anecdotes, case studies, and findings from research on aging, mental health, and illness, that growing older can be a rewarding and enjoyable phase of life. The authors do this by disputing many myths about aging—while they engage the reader in a personable discussion about its benefits and challenges. They ask us to give serious thought to the virtues and character strengths that can and do make growing older a vital and meaningful time. They don’t dispute that there is pain, loss, and illness, but stress that it is what we bring to the aging process as mature people that determines our experience of growing old.
According to Greenstein and Holland, essential to aging well is our individual capacity to transcend difficulties through activities that lift us out of our immediate troubles and inspire or create meaning for us. Thus, it is our involvement with art, music, nature, faith and spirituality, beauty, humor, and love that helps us through difficult times by transporting us out of ourselves. To achieve this, however, we need a willingness to notice and appreciate these spirit-enhancers and to appreciate the times in which we feel joy and keenness for life. The authors illustrate many ways in which those of us who age well are more likely to stop and notice the times in which we feel joy and keenness for life and less likely to let the small annoyances and upsets of life bother us.
From their vantage point, an important element of transcendence is also our ability to find a sense of meaning and purpose in the world. Using their own experience and their reviews of research studies, they identify such activities as volunteering, gardening, mentoring, civic involvement, and the capacity for gratitude as vehicles to move us beyond our troubles and ourselves as we age. For many whom Greenstein and Holland studied, meaning and purpose were rooted in a sense of shared humanity—“that we are all branches of the same great family tree.” From this sense of connectedness comes the motivation to take an active part in leaving behind a better world.
The authors devote a thoughtful chapter to “The Virtue of Passing On to the Next Generation,” in which they discuss how taking part in activities that help younger people both benefits the younger person and positively affects the older mentor. It’s a hopeful chapter, exploring the ways that seniors can and do make a meaningful contribution to those who are younger when we mentor, teach, or share of ourselves.
While Greenstein and Holland touch on many serious subjects, they devote a delightful chapter to the health and psychological benefits of humor. The reader is treated to some irreverent “senior” jokes, such as “ The Senility Prayer: “God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”
Along with naming Humor, Transcendence, and “Passing It On” (generativity) as virtues that transform and sustain us, they devote a chapter each to Courage, Wisdom, and Temperance. Courage is many things to many people, but Greenstein and Holland identify both “external courage” (having the internal resources to face adversity) and “internal courage” (the moral strength to defend convictions and beliefs). They point out that as we age and face our fears, we gain confidence that we can face them again and “make the best of it.” This confidence is enhanced by a greater sureness (which we develop as we age) about who we are, what we are capable of, and what we believe.
Wisdom is an equally complex virtue. The authors bring to light essential elements of wisdom as it pertains to aging, including self-insight, tolerance for uncertainty, empathy, a mature worldview, benevolence, and the ability to compromise. In their refreshingly direct manner, they say that these virtues contribute to our ability to “grow lighter as we go . . . how not to sweat the small stuff, learning how not to become too invested in particular outcomes” and accepting that we may not always achieve our goals.
One of the last chapters on the virtues of aging is on temperance, or—in Greenstein and Holland’s framing of it—moderation, or self-control. In reading this chapter, I found myself thinking of phrases used about older friends: “She’s mellowed with older age,” or “He’s more forgiving.” Those of us who age well seem better able to regulate our feelings, let go of anger, and practice moderation in our health choices. To lack these capacities has some striking consequences in older age, as the authors show.