Feeling curious about aging and staying healthy? That’s a good thing
I have been following your column on Successful Aging and your suggestions on how to do it well. Is there some aspect that most of us have not considered? H.S.
One characteristic rarely discussed and often debated is the relationship of curiosity to optimal aging.
Here is a snapshot view of just a few findings. According to one study, older adults are less open to new and unique experiences, both characteristics associated with curiosity. Other studies suggest older adults just try new things less. While others suggest a decline because older people are more interested in building relationships and pursuing emotional goals.
Then there is the other perspective. The late geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Gene Cohen wrote in “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain,”(Basic Books, 2005) that “as long as curiosity is not shut down prematurely by dogma, orthodoxy or overly pat belief systems, it can flourish throughout life and be a (source) of energy, vitality and satisfaction. Being curious about the world is a drive that can grow stronger with time, not weaker, he writes.
Being curious in later life has its benefits, according to Dr. Daniel J. Levitan, author of “Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives” (Dutton, 2020). He notes that being curious and open in later life is correlated with good health and longevity and can dramatically increase the quality of our lives. Furthermore, older people who are curious and try something new are more fun to be around. That translates to having more relationships with others, a good way to stay alert and maintain mental agility, according to Levitan.
Ken Dychtwald, the visionary, psychologist and gerontologist, brings the topic of age and curiosity to the moment in his recent book “Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life” (Unnamed Press Book, April 2021). The book is his memoir, a compelling story of his life, from his working-class roots in Newark to becoming a globally sought-after thought leader, researcher and speaker. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dychtwald.
He agrees that there are forces working against being curious. When you are young and in school, being told you have no artistic ability or getting a D in high school chemistry thinking you’ll never understand science or even being reprimanded for asking too many questions can place the innately curious mind on shut down, according to Dychtwald.
He also identifies a more contemporary obstacle: Google.
“We assume every question has already been answered; we just have to look it up,” he says, suggesting that Google can cause collateral damage that squelches curiosity. Additionally, advertisements that include older people often do not have messages or visuals of curious folks. If they do, they are expressing their curiosity about drug side effects and the safety of their pensions and Social Security checks.
Dychtwald says it’s time for all of us grown-ups to be far more curious about the big questions: how to reinvent ourselves, opportunities for artistic expression, how to be more empathetic and build better relationships with diverse groups. Add to that, he notes that we have few if any role models in popular media or business leadership, mentioning Jane Fonda and Bill Gates as among the few examples. And then there are those who think they know it all, closing the door on being curious, he adds.
He reminded me that we have institutions for curiosity seekers. They are called colleges and universities. “But they are generally ageist and orient to young adults,” he added. “The good news is that many older adults are active participants in adult learning programs at universities, faith-based organizations, senior centers and in programs offered by OASIS and Osher Life Long Learning Institutes.
After reading Dychtwald’s book, I realized that every aspect of his journey reflects his lifetime of curiosity with lessons learned along the way that are shared in his book. He finds “curiosity as the magic elixir for activity that can energize millions of older adults who are on automatic pilot.” Indeed, he believes curiosity is ageless, adding “There is so much to learn; we just need to open the windows and let the winds of curiosity blow into our lives.
So, what is the message? Despite some studies that indicate, we, the older folks, may be less curious than our younger counterparts, it’s a decision of choice not capacity. Consider evidence of the positive relationship of late-life curiosity to longevity, good health, mental agility and social relationships. Dychtwald punctuates this with his unfiltered, soulful journey of successes and failures with powerful stories and lessons learned relevant to all life stages. And, it’s a good read.
Thank you, H.S for your good question. Stay safe, be well and be kind to yourself and others. And of course, be curious!
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity