Be happy – live longer!

Posted on April 22, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Group of women laughing over lunch

For a short time I lived with a grumpy old man who I called ‘Victor Meldrew’. My former partner enjoyed watching the “Grumpy Old Men” TV series, where male celebrities in their 50s and beyond expounded on all the things that annoy them, whilst he nodded and agreed with all their grumbles and gripes. I, on the other hand, just found them hilariously funny. Being grumpy requires a certain frame of mind that I simply don’t posses, and according to research from Sweden, it’s a spot of luck that I have a generally happy outlook, because being grumpy could knock as much as a decade off my life.

Professor Fredrik Snellman of Umea University in Sweden is a leading sociologist and his study indicates that those people who have the most negative attitude to ageing are harming their health. Well, negativity is never good, so in some respects his results are hardly surprising. But, his study, first published in Nordic Psychology at the end of 2015, has aroused interest because he also claims that “ageism’, or our perceptions of ageing from a young age need to change. I’m sure many older people would agree with that.

Redefine ageing

Professor Snellman says: “We are using age in many ways to organise our own and other people’s lives and to make our social world understandable. The usage can sometimes be prejudiced and have undesirable consequences to us all. It is often hidden and the ways it is noticeable in everyday life can seem trivial. That is why it is of importance to make visible the everyday use of ageism and find new terms for them.”

What stands out for me in this statement are his use of the words “hidden” and “trivial”.  The negative attitudes to ageing are not always blatantly obvious, yet as we approach 50 or 60 we become more aware of them and about our own attitudes to it. If we point out the discriminatory aspects of these attitudes, then we are making a mountain out of a molehill. Other ‘fringe’ groups will no doubt have similar experiences, but isn’t it rather shocking that ageing puts us on the fringes of society. After all there isn’t anyone alive who can avoid the onward march of years, even if there are different approaches to dealing with the various aspects of it.


Mature athlete on climbing wall

Prejudice against ageing

The research focuses on the prejudice against ageing and the aged that European society—and other first world countries—holds at the centre of society. Snellman also feels quite strongly that we need to redefine the whole concept of “ageism” in a way that spreads across generations and “mirrors all people’s practical experiences of the chronological, social, biological and psychological parts of ageing.” I think what he’s saying is that we need to reeducate our thinking, starting before the teens even, and move away from the negative attitude towards the elderly, or even those in their 50s and 60s, who are also seen as ‘over the hill’ by important sectors of society, especially employers.

Overturn the effects of ageing

According to Professor Snellman. “Awareness of, and a lively debate about, the complex problem of ageism is needed, in particular about how age enables and limits our lives throughout the course of life.” This is interesting, is it not? He is claiming that we’re affecting our health and longevity throughout our lives, simply because of our approach to ageing; we see being older as a negative, and let’s face it, ‘youth’ is a deity that is widely worshipped. Our perception that achievements must happen while we’re below a certain age, stifles any possibility of discovering our strengths when we’re older. We often fall into the trap of taking the “it’s too late” view of life and give up on ideas, plans and projects. This needs to change, and from a young age.

The negatives of ageing affect us over the course of our whole life, as “age related indifference does not suddenly appear when we grow old. It appears gradually and in different ways at all ages.” If our view of ageing went through a revolution and we viewed the journey towards the later decades with a positive anticipation of what we could do and how valuable age is, then we’d prolong our lives, at least that’s what professor Snellman is saying.

Be happy about ageing and think of all the positives – don’t turn into one of the Grumpies –the shiny, happy people live longer and achieve more.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.