Aging Well book review

August 21, 2014

When my daughter was getting her masters in Counseling Psychology, she had to read a book entitled Aging Well by George E. Vaillant, M.D. (2002). Naturally, it caught my attention! Even though I don't think of myself as old or even older, yet, I wanted to see if the author had some ideas for navigating this process.

The book's subtitle is "Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development." For more than five decades, Harvard researchers have studied hundreds of people from a variety of backgrounds, to determine why some people "age well," while others don't. The book follows the stories of a number of individuals, and makes some conclusions about the things that help keep us healthy and happy.

I love bullet-point information, so I am going to try and give you the top "tips" and information I gleaned from this book.

*  Creativity and a desire to pursue life-long learning is key to aging well. People who continue to maintain an interest in life, and in learning new things, do well. The creative process keeps us young. So, I would say, learn Italian, learn to crochet, read books that challenge and stretch, stay interested in the world . . .

*  People who master the art of "generativity," unselfishly giving to the generation below them, are more likely to be fulfilled adults in their 70s. These people are willing to teach and mentor, not just their own children and grandchildren, but others as well, all the time holding on to them loosely, and letting them grow in their own right.

*  Alcoholism, and drug and chemical dependency are negative factors in aging well, and not just because of the obvious health effects. Social relationships are more likely to be damaged, and supportive relationships, critical to a healthy life, may not be in place. 

*  A happy marriage is a key indicator in aging well. Even if you are now widowed, a happy marriage in the past helps in the aging process. Single people with good, solid friendships, or even one close, supportive friend, do better than those who are divorced, alone, or in dysfunctional relationships. And, by the way, the author states that "generativity," commitment, tolerance, and a sense of humor were the four common factors  he saw in happy marriages.

*  Being a "Keeper of Memory" is also a good indicator of aging well. I can picture a grandmother sharing photographs and stories with her grandchildren, an antique refinisher restoring and preserving a precious heirloom, an elderly person writing down family history that might be forgotten . . . I think the point here is that people who understand and value tradition and history are more likely to have made peace with it. They understand the value of continuity and of the passing of values.

*  The ability to forgive and to be grateful. There is great healing power in this. In some of the stories in the book, we see people who don't quite achieve this until older age; it seems to be a long process sometimes, but worth pursuing. 

*  "It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age." This makes me think of children who have had horrific childhoods and go on to eventually have successful and happy lives. Somewhere, oftentimes, there was one mentor, one friend, who showed a different way. In fact, although education, IQ, and happy childhoods generally predict better outcomes, handicaps in these areas were often overcome, and fortunately, did not "doom" study participants to an unhappy old age.

It was quite interesting to me that very little is said in the book about diet or exercise or overall health as being key to aging well. Of course, one must be healthy to make it to old age. But, overall subjective good health was more important than objective poor health (in other words, "it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick"). Another way of saying this is that attitude goes a long ways toward how we feel. Several study participants, despite having health challenges, sometimes serious, were still able to enjoy a fulfilling old age.

Although there was some discussion about the importance of spirituality in the lives of some of the participants, it seemed to be incorporated into the general idea of attaining wisdom and integrity, another key to aging well. Even though this was obviously a secular study, it did seem to me that its conclusions are consistent with the benefits of a life of faith.

My daughter told me that two ideas stuck with her after she read this book. This first was that life is a process, and we continue to grow, or should continue to grow, up to the end of our life. There is no magic age when we should have "arrived" or "have it all together" (whew! what a relief for me!). The people who aged well were continually learning and growing and changing.

The second was the idea of continuing to learn to "take people in," as the author describes it. If friends or family move or die, continue to reach out to people. The author says that he believes the most critical element in aging well is "the gift of allowing the healing hope, strength, and experience of others inside."

Now that is an idea worth pondering. Although Dr. Vaillant talks much about "generativity," the giving of ourselves to those younger than us, and how satisfied and fulfilled the study participants were who helped others, it seems also critically important that we know how to receive love, too.

This was an interesting book, full of stories of people interviewed over decades, from college up until old age. The book's tone was, in general, very positive and inspiring, as it gave many examples of people living fulfilled and happy lives well into their eighties. I'd like to learn a few things from them.

What do you all think? What are some of your ideas for aging well? 


  1. I will have to think about this, as you have talked about most of the points I might have chosen. This is all so valid. I think about the elderly people with whom I like to to spend time. They are, unfailingly, engaged in life, interested in others and ready to smile.

  2. I think it's so true about learning something new or having some kind of a hobby and having a positive outlook on life! Thanks for this helpful post. Wishing you a wonderful weekend Deborah.

  3. These are all excellent insights into aging well!! Very interesting review of this book, Deborah.
    Thank you, too, for your lovely visits!
    Mary Alice

  4. Something to think about and aspire to....insights into our healthy future are not to be taken lightly or is my wish that I go out in style.

  5. Definitely something to think about, some great points.

  6. Turning fifty this year, and witnessing some very visual, as well as physical changes in me, I have become more aware of the aging process, and how it has started to affect my daily routine. These points you have highlighted are definitely valid, and actually seem quite obvious, but, it's a wonder how many people actually make an effort to 'be' these aging well qualities, somewhat having made a half conscious decision, to slow down. I'm the first to admit that my physical energy levels have decreased significantly, mostly due to hormonal factors, but in contrast, I believe that my creative spirit is soaring higher.

    Thanks for this very interesting post!


  7. This makes me want to read the book. I see so much which lines up with a (rather large) group of women in our church who are in their late nineties to 103. They are not home bodies or recluses, either. Generally speaking, they are there every week (and for Sunday school too!)

    When asked about their longevity, they mention many of these. One thing that sticks out to my husband, who is particularly close to several of them, is their eagerness to LEARN all the time. He substitutes in their SS class, and is floored when they take far more notes than the men he usually teaches.

    I had never heard the term generativity, but I'm going to adopt it and work harder there. I have several young moms around me right now who are "trying" to get closer to me, (Sometimes you can just tell these things. They email or stop me for a chat or advice). I admit that lately I've been in kind of a valley myself and haven't really opened up to them as much as I would have done in the past. This post is a timely reminder of the importance of it.

    Sorry to ramble. Post made me think.

    1. Debbie, you make some good points here. I too have noticed that many young mothers reach out to an Aunty figure. For me the most wonderful aspect of this has been when they name a chil after me. This connection across generations certainly gives me a reason to stay young at heart.

  8. I have a good mentor in aging well in my 94 year old friend who keeps physically active with gardening and her mind with the desire to continually learn. She is always reading books about different countries to find out about their economy and way of life, many of which she visited during her travels up until about the age of 90.
    She remains socially active, plays bridge and goes to the local theatre productions. At her age, she has little wrong with her and her mind is still as sharp as a tack.

  9. Nice post, Deborah. The points are well taken. Very often my siblings and I think back of how our mother always moved so fluidly through the times - born before the Depression, her young husband (my dad) wounded in WWII, and then raising us 9 kids from the beginning to end of the boomer generation. She later reinvented herself yet again through education and a career in the medical field, and had friends across generations. She epitomized all that was written in this text, and I am trying. Like you mention, I would also be apt to include healthy habits and spirituality into that mix for attaining the wisdom while aging. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Interesting...all very interesting. Wonderful photos you've added to your post, too. I especially like the one of the man knitting.

  11. Dearest Deborah,
    Quite interesting subject for your daughter and for all of us.
    On my Google+ 'About' page I have listed: Ongoing School of LIFE!
    That is the truth, we learn till we die and better continue to for staying healthy in mind and soul.
    Noticed that your photos don't show up on the sideline. Guess that is due to Google's Hummingbird Searchable Content. As long as you only put 'source' in your link; the searchable content is missing. It is also by law required to mention the source by name and or subject.
    Both my husband and I have been publishers of books and articles and we know how annoying it is when others don't give credit.
    It certainly will help your true web presence as Google already does punish this.
    Hugs and happy weekend to you and your family.

    1. Thank you so much Mariette for pointing this out. I've always used my own photos except for this post and one other recent one. I had told myself it was better in the long run not to have to worry about copyright issues, etc. I should have listened to myself. I just pulled the photos out of this post and replaced them with a couple of my own. Better safe than sorry.

    2. Dearest Deborah,
      Glad you did that; always more personal and indeed better be safe than sorry. I have come across some mention of very nasty lawsuits...

  12. Hi Deborah, this is a wonderful post. Continuing to learn throughout life if so very important to aging well and healthy. I believe this to be so true. It not only keeps the mind sharp, but keeps life interesting too.
    Along with a great attitude and outlook on life it shows on our face. Your picks are gorgeous. How proud you must be of your dear daughter in her learnings and growth.

    Thank you for stopping by and your kind comment. You asked about the epi-pen. No I do not have one!
    Have a great weekend sweet friend and enjoy the last days of summer.

  13. A great post! As to aging well, I can think of my sister's MIL whose property is adjacent to mine. Ninety two years old...still baking cookies for the little kids who visit, like my grandson, and canning tomatoes and more. Didn't even slow down from making entire holiday meals until the last year or so where she relented and let people contribute a few sides...

  14. Wonderful post, Deborah and how proud you must be of your daughter, too! I totally agree with all of these findings. I think that finding and seeking joy in the little things of life is also important. I so love the idea of mentoring younger generations, but 'holding on to them loosely, letting them grow in their own right'. I think I need to buy this book - it would be wonderful to share with family and friends. Thank you. xo Karen

  15. I think...

    That I want to read that book!!!

    Thank you for the reading suggestion, and for the wisdom contained, in this post.


  16. Love this post, Deborah. I'm going to post it on my facebook page :)

  17. Hi Deborah,
    After your wonderful review, this seems like a book that I would love to read. I certainly want to age well and so many of those ideas just make sense to me. Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Have a beautiful weekend, my friend. xo

  18. Love that generativity word. I think it's true. Thanks for sharing this.

  19. Having watched both my parents age (now in their 80s) I know which one I want to take after - my dad, he has such a positive attitude, "can do" about things, interested in living, generous and kind. Whereas my mother has become quite depressed, negative and finds life is a struggle. It has been both interesting (and sad) to watch those that brought you up age but it does happen to all of us and we do need to make the best of it as it is simply another chapter in our lives. The book sounds very interesting.

  20. I read this and didn't comment. I wanted to think about it. And now I see the very first commenter said the same thing. I like this quote in your post, 'The people who aged well were continually learning and growing and changing.' That sums it up quite well for me. I want to keep learning and when I am working on a project, I'm excited about life and getting up in the morning! I'm going to read your comments now, too. This was very well written! Thank you! And I consider older....late 80s, maybe 90s now! lol I sure don't want to start acting like I'm 'done' and this is all there my age. (60s)


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