It’s not often that we speak about getting older from a positive perspective.
In fact, many of us talk about life after forty to be on a decidedly downhill trajectory -‘Over The Hill’- if you will.
Enter Dutch author and researcher, Ellen Heuven, who is leading the research charge around positive psychology and aging. At PURA, Ellen’s research is of keen interest to us as a skincare company that is founded on the values of protecting women’s health, elevating a woman’s appreciation for her natural, individual beauty, and honouring her body, mind, soul throughout the various stages of her life. We were grateful to have the chance to virtually interview Ellen about her new book - Psychology of Positive Aging - a compilation of interviews with women over fifty.
Through these interviews and her own research, Ellen reveals how, “you can grow, be beautiful and achieve goals, not so much DESPITE but WITH or THANKS to aging.” An inspiring read for all of us privileged to grow older with each passing day and a book that offers a refreshing and well-researched approach to the aging process.
Based on your research, what are the keys to positive aging?
There were definitely common thoughts and attitudes that kept cropping up throughout my conversations with the forty women I interviewed (twenty of which were selected for my book), even though each of these women had very different backgrounds and life experiences. Self-love was very often mentioned. Interestingly, self-love is an ability that can bloom and intensify with aging. Especially for women, the loving, caring attitude is no longer mainly directed towards others, but also towards the self. Loving yourself as you age is definitely a part of having a positive attitude towards growing older.
Another common key to aging positively is the capacity to make autonomous decisions for oneself. The ability to decide for yourself what you think of aging - how you want to age, what goals you desire to reach - are very important. Positive thought patterns are something you can train. Many times, our thoughts towards aging tend to be defect or problem focused, but they don’t have to be that way. In my research, I was very interested in meta level data - not focusing on ‘happiness’ as we understand it, but rather on positivity. Being positive is something you can practice. As we age, we have both the opportunity and capability to manage our emotions and body in a way that suits us best. It’s definitely not about being positive all the time and in my book, I was very interested in profiling women who lived through difficult situations and overcame obstacles. In my research, I learned that people who are positive do not have more or less hard things in their lives, but differ in how they respond.
In terms of aging with a positive attitude, it is very important to stop framing the aging process by strictly medical parameters. Instead, shifting your focus to how you are able to grow in wisdom, knowledge, experience as you age is helpful. There are indeed hard things that also come with aging, but embracing the aging process and everything that comes from it, is a fundamental key to a positive mindset.
Tell us more about the inspiration behind your book, Psychology of Positive Aging. What inspired you to write this book and why did you choose the format of interviewing various women?
My inspiration for this book came directly from my personal life. When I turned 50, my husband left me for a much younger woman. I felt the deep sting of rejection and became keenly interested in what could be ‘better’ about growing older. At this point, I realized that I had also bought into the decline narrative about aging, perhaps somewhat subconsciously. While I was processing my divorce, my sister had started a very successful Instagram account about pro-aging, @_chapter_fifty. As a PhD in psychology, I became more and more interested in how we manage age, aging, and how we collectively and personally treat aging individuals around us. When I decided to write a book on the subject, I did not want it to be a cold research treatise, but rather filled with wisdom from actual women. For this book, I started from lived experience from real women and then followed with research. I felt that this was the best way to represent the eclectic lives of women and reveal that there is not only one way to age with a positive mindset. Indeed, the women in my book took very different approaches to life as they age. I found that my interviews were very empowering for the women responding to my questions because they were able to identify for themselves the positive things about growing older.
My book is very much about combining real-life role models with the science of aging positively. The current body of research surrounding the process of aging is usually very defect focused. I want to change this narrative and uncover the positive aspects of aging and living well through the seasons of life. For instance, as we age, our emotions evolve and we develop the ability to feel more than one emotion at a time while at a younger age we tend to experience our emotions in a more one-dimensional manner. Women often achieve a deeper level of spiritual maturity as they age as well. These are some of the positive attributes of aging that I wanted to reveal through this book.
What advice would you give about positive aging to women in their 40’s?
Women between the ages of 45 and 80 are often a forgotten group in aging research. So, really, that’s who my book is for. I would recommend reading this book in your forties to look forward to various aspects of growing older. I wrote this book to demonstrate that a simplistic decline narrative as we age is, indeed, a false narrative. I would encourage women in their forties to also be informed about the positive things that come with aging. As Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” One of the women in my book found the years following menopause to be like a ‘second spring’ in her life. Positive aging has so much to do with how we frame the process of getting older and part of this can be helped through educating ourselves.
How can we manage our body, mind and emotions in a positive way knowing that aging is an inevitable part of living?
As American psychiatrist Gene Cohen once said, “There is no denying the problems that accompany aging, but what has been universally denied is the potential.” I have discovered that understanding and managing our body, mind, and emotions is pivotal to the art of living and flourishing as we grow older.
- Body - It’s up to everyone to decide for themselves how to manage their body. Keeping your hair grey or deciding to dye it is a good example. It’s all about empowering YOURSELF as you age. It’s a good idea to invest more in your body as you grow older. Aging allows us to become more intimately in-tune with the intricacies of our body and to truly appreciate our body on a moment by moment basis. Take time to be proud of what it can do. Indeed, your body is not only a machine, so it helps to relate to your body in a respectful, loving way.
- Mind - It is fundamental to cultivate your mind. Did you know that the highest density of neurological pathways in your brain is when you are in your late sixties/early seventies? This is often what we refer to as wisdom. It is important to know that we can continue to grow as we age and expanding our capacity to learn and grow is absolutely essential. Stay curious! Think about aging as an opportunity to put, “more make-up on your mind instead of your face”. Your mind is very vast and it is essential to grasp hold of a growth mindset, regardless of age.
- Emotion - Our emotions are very complex. Emotionally, aging can be very difficult as we often move through periods of loss and grief during this season. It is comforting to understand that we become more capable of managing emotions as we age. Women become more emotionally agile with age as a result of knowing themselves more intimately, and also become more skilled at handling these emotions. Negative emotions form part of life so we need to relate to these emotions in a more compassionate way. As we age, we have the capacity to be more mindful and can transition from reacting to responding. Research shows that older people can move more quickly out of anger in comparison to their younger counterparts. In general, older people experience more positive emotions than younger people. Certain aspects of our lives only get better as we age and I wrote my book to share this knowledge.
How can we as women and mothers leave a legacy around the pretext of positive aging for our children? What are the most important ways we can model positive aging for them?
The majority of the women I interviewed for my book had a mother that was a positive role model. As mothers and parents in general, we reveal so much to our children through the behaviours and attitudes we model throughout this journey called ‘life’. Thus, it is important to give positive examples of staying enthusiastic, vibrant, purposeful, and curious as we get older. Life doesn’t end at a certain point when we deem ourselves ‘old’, and it’s important to demonstrate to the next generation that it is possible to bloom in so many beautiful and different ways as we age. We all pass through different phases in life that ask for different qualities in us, and even when our children are grown adults, we can continue to be positive and essential role models.
Follow Ellen on Instagram @ellenheuven or visit her website.
Interview by Marla Boehr.