The Paradox of Aging: The Best is Yet to Be


What was the purpose of his pilgrimage?
To make a new intelligence prevail.

-Wallace Stevens,
“The Comedian as the Letter C”

Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.
– Lawrence Block

1. An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident

Serendipity is a word that is as enchanting to the ear as the actual experience of it. The word comes from English author Horace Walpole. He coined the term in a letter from 1754, saying: “…this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”

Walpole formed the word using the old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. The name was in the title of a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: “as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….”

Unintended Consequences of Intended Actions

The metaphor of a journey has been often associated with living a long life. The analogy is fitting because inherent in the process of growing older is the unknown, where serendipity dwells.

Explorers of eternal youth, beginning with Ponce de Leon, to present day life-extension advocates seeking anti-aging cures to old age, are in danger of missing the unintended consequences of the intended actions of living to old age. When the poet Robert Browning wrote: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…” he was providing clues to something.

Recent research by Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist and associate professor at Scripps College in Claremont, together with collaborator, neuroscientist Michael Kisley of the University of Colorado, recorded the brain activity of 63 adults, ranging in age, who were shown a series of negative and positive images, such as dead animals or a bowl of ice cream. The older adults were about 30% less reactive to the negative images compared with the younger adults.

Similar research conducted in this area has provided collaborating results; older adults experience negative emotion less often and recover from them in less time.

“What we see is a real difference in how negative information is processed by the brain,” Wood says. “When we talk about maturity or wisdom, we’re talking about that ability to integrate negative emotion or cognitive information; being able to weigh it and not find it so disruptive.”

The Paradox of Aging: The Closer to Death You Are, The Closer to Life You Are

This new intelligence, often called wisdom, surfaces in older adults and is the “desirable discovery” of living longer. The more adept regulation of emotions may be due in part to school-of-hard-knocks experience. Older adults know from experience that life goes on after mishaps—a fender-bender isn’t the end of the world. Your “slow” to respond cell phone won’t ruin your life.

Psychologist Laura Carstensen of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity found that individuals who perceive their future time as limited, have goals that are emotionally meaningful. Whereas those who think the future is open-ended have goals which tended to be knowledge related. Carstensen concluded that as people age they encounter “shrinking time horizons.” With less time left, people tend to focus on the now (where serendipity happens). “As people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they tend to put more value on it,” she says. Younger people may anticipate that the older years will be unhappy because the body deteriorates and the mind is aware that time is running out. But these issues aren’t typically depressing to older adults.

“The paradox of aging is that there is this decline in physical well-being and cognitive status and yet an increase in psychological well-being,” Carstensen says. “We [colleagues in her laboratory] don’t think of that as a paradox, of course, because it’s the decline that reminds people that life will not go on forever.”

“With an eye on the clock, older people are more selective about their activities and relationships,” Wood says. “The happiest find ways to feel useful, giving them a sense of purpose and making their time feel meaningful. The happiest tend to say they enjoy serving others in some capacity.”

“I think of old age as the richest form of emotional satisfaction that is possible,” Carstensen says. “There are still positive emotions, but there is also an understanding and appreciation that there is an ending around the corner.”

Within those statements can be found the something else, the serendipitous findings more suited to your needs as an older adult. Younger adults will not discover the paradox—until they too, are fortunate enough to take the pilgrimage.


Serendipity the movie Serendipity
Max Fuhrmann – Sagacity: What I Learned from My Elderly Psychotherapy Clients

(painting by Anton Christian)