When you envision your future, do you think about your work and accomplishments, the success of your business, accumulating wealth and planning for retirement? You most likely do. But I'd hazard a guess that not many people think much about what they can do to age well.
We all want to live a good life now, but how we live today creates an indelible pattern for how we'll live in these future years—the years after we turn 50. As Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel put it, "To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."
And just as it's important to invest in your business, it's also important to invest in your life by doing what it takes to age successfully. Successful aging isn't just a matter of maintaining your physical health but also your psychological, emotional and social health.
One of the most important studies to attest to this is one directed by George E. Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life From the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. The 75-year old study, which is the world's longest-running research on aging, tracked three groups of people who were born between 1910 and 1930 (most of the surviving participants are now in their early 90s).
This remarkable study gives us a rare peek into the key factors that can permit us to age well. Study researchers found that six factors in particular, measured by age 50, turned out to be the predictors of those who would be in the happiest and healthiest group by age 80.
While these factors included some expected findings, such as maintaining normal weight, exercising regularly, avoiding smoking and not abusing alcohol, two other less-expected factors turned out to be having a stable marriage or relationship after age 50 and using adaptive coping strategies when faced with anxiety, challenges and conflicts. Habitually using adaptive coping mechanisms or mature defenses is what Vaillant calls the ability to "make lemonade out of life's lemons."
According to this landmark study, our happiness doesn't depend on whether we're rich or poor. If we want to end up in the "happy-well" category in our later years (as opposed to the "sad-sick" category), we'd better learn how to use these mature adaptive mechanisms. Right after avoiding smoking, they emerged as the second, most powerful predictor of successful aging. One could call this the secret of living a good life.
Let's take a closer look at these five key mature coping mechanisms, which the study associated with better health in our later years.
Sublimation is a powerful defense mechanism. It can transform negativity into positive behavior, actions or emotions, and channels energy into more constructive pursuits. A common sublimation activity, for example, is channeling aggression or anger into pursuing a sport. Hitting a few balls on the tennis court is a good way to let off some steam.
Having a sublimation habit is a helpful tool in maintaining a more optimistic outlook. For example, when you encounter a temporary setback in your business, rather than letting negative emotions take over, you use your imagination to focus on your ultimate goal. Sublimation also helps you find outlets for negative feelings, such as by channeling envy into dreaming bigger and working harder to realize your dreams. Or if you're worried about finding new customers, try channeling that energy into revamping your website or learning everything you can about social media marketing.
Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others. We're accustomed to looking out for number one, to view self-interest as the pathway to success, but doing something for others can bring joy and personal satisfaction.
In Vaillant's study, altruism is defined as "doing for others what they need, not what you want to do for them." There are many ways to be altruistic and give of yourself in the service of others. Perhaps the simplest is to practice emotional alms-giving. While you may think of alms-giving as donations of material goods, such as clothing and money, emotional alms-giving, on the other hand, are intangible gifts of the heart. Lord Acton, a 19th century author, made this insightful observation long ago: “There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.”
So make it a practice to look at people with kind eyes. Withhold judgment, boost someone's confidence or help someone save face when they make an error. These are all altruistic behaviors, adopted purely for the benefit of others.
As a small-business owner, you're part of the fabric of your community, so invest in that community. For example, whenever possible, patronize stores in your neighborhood rather than at the other end of town. Once in a while, give something for nothing to a supplier or loyal customer.
There are many companies who've built altruism right into their business model. Find ways that you, too, can make altruism one of your business values, even if it's on a much smaller scale. (For more ideas on altruism, see "A Different Kind of High: The Power of Altruism.")
Suppression is another coping mechanism that can lead to greater health and well-being. It involves deciding to intentionally postpone paying attention to disturbing problems. It's a way to distance ourselves from unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors and to address them in good time.
You can practice suppression, for example, by postponing an important discussion when you're angry or worried about something: A simple "I'd rather not talk about this issue right now" is a smart way out. This strategy frees you to cope with the present reality and to deal with your responsibilities without being distracted by every negative thought that pops up and also allows you to choose a better time to deal with it. It takes maturity to acknowledge a thought or impulse and not let it derail your agenda.
In this instance, anticipation is about looking ahead and planning for any future inner discomfort. Wearing a negative hat and anticipating anything that could go wrong is an excellent way to master the situation—it prematurely prepares us psychologically and emotionally to deal with possible, anxiety-generating events. This activity requires insight, but doing this has been proven to lower anxiety and diminish stress.
Let's say you're planning to make a sales pitch to a group of C-level executives, and you've been allocated 30 minutes for your presentation. But when you arrive at the executive offices, you're told you only have 10 minutes. This is understandably a stressful situation. Using anticipation as a coping mechanism, you can plan ahead for this eventuality by creating two sets of slides: the deluxe version for a 30-minute time allotment, and the shorter, pared-down version that consists of one or two slides that outline your high level recommendations and a call to action.
Anticipation is one of the best antidotes to complacency. Act on the future before it happens, and make anticipation a part of your coping mechanisms.
Humor plays a vital role in human resilience by helping you bend without breaking. As Vaillant puts it, "Humor transforms pain into the ridiculous." The ability to make light of everyday challenges and poke some fun at yourself is one of the healthiest coping mechanisms you can adopt.
There's overwhelming evidence that humor and laughter lower stress and positively influence health. For example, if you're a perfectionist, dealing with mistakes and failure can prompt immature defense mechanisms, such as venting or self-blame. But if you use positive reframing (seeing the lesson learned) and don't make a mountain out of a molehill, you're better off.
A study conducted by the University of Kent on dealing with failures found that humor is one of the most effective coping mechanisms. When trying to cope with "failures," Dr. Joachim Stoeber, the lead researcher of the study and a leading authority on perfectionism and performance, recommends focusing on what's been achieved rather than on what hasn't been achieved. "It's no use ruminating about small failures and setbacks," he says "and drag yourself further down. Instead, it's more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and—if it's a small thing—have a laugh about it."
According to World Health Statistics 2014, we're living longer than ever. This interactive graph of life expectancy around the world shows that the U.S. went from a life expectancy of 75 in 1990 to 79 in 2012. And yet the aim isn't just to live longer but to live better.
The research is clear: To some degree, our fate lies in our own hands. These five mature coping mechanisms can help you mentally cope with the inevitable challenges you'll face—a factor that will enrich the quality of your life now and in your later years. And while there's no GPS that can guarantee where you'll end up, doing these things may very well lead you to a healthy old age.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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