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Nov 30, 2022

The Timeless Question: How Do We Live Well As We Age?

People have different needs at different life stages, and the science of flourishing is working to account for this.

By Benjamin Reeves

Life is governed by a simple but universal truth: We change as we age, and what we need changes too. Likewise, what it means to flourish changes when one is a child, a teenager, middle aged or elderly. This isn’t a complex concept at face value, but understanding what it means in practice — how we can live well as we grow older — has challenged philosophers and scientists for all of human history.

A recent panel moderated by Scientific American Editor-in-Chief Laura Helmuth, as part of Temple World Charity Foundation’s Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, engaged with exactly this topic, examining what it means to flourish as we age and how science can help us age better.

While the exact definition of flourishing has been a matter of debate among philosophers — and social scientists — for centuries, it can roughly be thought of as being in a state of living the good life. Harvard’s Arthur Brooks further contends that the feeling of happiness can be “broken apart into more or less three big areas”—enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning—which show up again and again in research. “If you’re missing one… you won’t be as happy as you can be. If you have all of them in balance, in abundance, you’ll be basically living your best life.”

Of course, what is meaningful or enjoyable to us as a child, a teenager, an adult or an elder will be very different. While a one-year-old may be captivated by putting things in a basket and taking them out over and over again, the same task would likely seem tedious—at best—to the same person twenty-five years later.

Most communities around the world recognize childhood as a valuable life stage that is distinct and different from adulthood, rather than treating children as “deficient adults'' noted Anna Corwin, associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Yet when it comes to old age, this is not always the case, and in many cases true “wellbeing at the end of the life is not what we think it is.”

Corwin argues that in most industrialized countries, the discourse around wellbeing and aging tends to focus on “not aging” or how to avoid aging. In essence, people often become trapped by an attempt to be an “ageless adult who continues to be productive and independent for as long as possible.”

However, in anthropological studies on Catholic nuns and other communities where people are aging well (exhibiting lower levels of Alzheimer’s, for instance), the research shows “they are not trying to avoid aging,” Corwin says and that instead they “are actually doing a tremendous amount of linguistic and cultural practices around embracing aging and the end of life as a unique life stage.” In essence, people and communities that treat old age as a unique, natural life stage in the same way that we treat childhood as a unique and special life stage, tend to age more gracefully.

Because of the rapid pace of technological, environmental and social change, the skills, resources and support young people need to flourish throughout the duration of their lives can be radically different now than it was even a few years ago. Demographics and economics often come into play in terms of determining the conditions young people come of age in.

In Kenya, for instance, the median age is 19, with more than 50 percent of the population below the age of 20, says Tom Osborn, co-founder and CEO of the Shamiri Institute. At the same time, there are only about 50,000 university seats for 500,000 graduating high school students every year. For a Kenyan teenager who is “getting ready for that transition into adulthood, there’s a lot of social pressure from friends and family, form the community,” Osborn says. “The question for us is, in this crucible of pressure, how can we cultivate an environment where young people can not just ‘survive’ or just transition to adults, but can flourish.”

In Kenya, because of these pressures, many young people see this time in their lives as “do or die, which is often not the case,” Osborn adds, but nevertheless it remains the predominant perception.

Perception matters when it comes to flourishing, because, as Corwin notes, “there seems to be some correlation between outlook as young people and then outcomes as older adults.” Indeed, young novices and postulants who were just beginning their journeys as nuns and who used more positive language in their writings in their early years were shown to have more positive health outcomes at the end of life and lower instances of Alzheimer’s.

In a competitive landscape like Kenya — particularly with the rapid pace of environmental and technology change — societies need “very robust and very active study of flourishing among young people, because even yesterday’s knowledge may not be very relevant today, because the dynamics keep changing and evolving rather rapidly,” says Osborn. Indeed, even interventions as small as helping young people reframe challenges as opportunities for growth may help them to develop and cultivate practices that will help this navigate the difficult moments and flourish later in life.

Given that aging is an unavoidable fact of life, we must account for it to truly flourish. Corwin suggests “integrating people in multigenerational spaces” — rather than segregating children and older people — and promoting practices for interdependence and accepting that even people whose health has declined “are still valuable and still can have beautiful fulfilling existences.”

How to live the good life — from childhood to old age — is a question that’s at least as old as the sphinx. Research today into the science of flourishing can help us shape our world and societies to support the changing needs of human beings from birth until death.

Benjamin Reeves is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at BenjaminReeves.com or follow him on Twitter.

Play the above video to learn more about "Human Flourishing as We Age," in this segment from The First Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, organized by Templeton World Charity Foundation.

What does flourishing amid modern challenges and adversity mean at different life stages across cultures? Speakers from various perspectives — and age groups —  share their thoughts on how the differences and similarities in feelings of purpose, happiness and life satisfaction across the life course impact flourishing.

Arthur Brooks, Professor, Harvard University, Bestselling Author, and Columnist at The Atlantic
Anna Corwin, Associate Professor, California Institute of Integral Studies
Tom Osborn, Co-Founder & CEO, Shamiri Institute

Moderated by:
Laura Helmuth, Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American

Visit HumanFlourishing.org to learn more.