Daniel Levitin, is a psychologist, neuroscientist and best-selling author. In this book he hares his insights on what really happens to our minds as we age. Deterioration is no longer the only destination on our aging path. We can expect peak happiness in our eighties and even improved decision-making skills in later life. All this is good news as our ‘health span’ catches up to our life span.
His earlier publication “This is Your Brain on Music” is inspired by and evidence of his early musical background. It is also evidence in his own life of the belief that the human mind has the capacity to evolve and develop into new areas of interest and vocation. In this book, his emphasis is on successful aging.
The author refers to what it means to be an older adult. He says that old age is often seen as a time of limitations, infirmities and sadness. But while it is true that as we get older, there are things we don’t do as well as we used to when we were younger, it doesn’t mean that all older people are sad or depressed. In fact, older adults show a positivity bias. They live differently than younger adults, spending more of their available time doing things they like. “No wonder they are happier than those at forty-years old who are doing things they don’t like in order to get ahead in life so that they can eventually enjoy the fruits of unhappy labor”.
Levitin approaches his subject by giving a broad introduction to the theory of personality and indicates which personality characteristics are more likely to ensure successful aging. Of the “Big Five” theory of personality (Openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion) he identifies “conscientiousness” as a critical factor. This ensures that an individual would have a stronger sense of control of their lives and would most likely acquire sensible habits like eating well, exercising regularly and having a good sleeping routine. There is also an important piece of advice for retirees. It suggests that they should not stop working. They should continue a working involvement at some or other meaningful enterprise if they are to survive their retirement and experience a sense of an ongoing productive life.
The author further dispels some widely held wrong beliefs; popular myths. The first is that the brain stops growing in its functionality after its youthful first years. New research now confirms that there is impressive neuroplasticity which enables the brain to grow and adapt to new information as well as cognitive challenges deep into the senior years. Older people are just as able to respond to problems as younger people. We can improve our ability to see the patterns. This is the foundation of mental ability and a problem-solving capacity.
The other widely held myth is that happiness belongs to the youth, that older people inevitably are more prone to depression and anxiety. Research quoted by Levitin confirms that the least happy time for people is in their early thirties going on to the early forties. Our happiest times are from our early fifties onwards. The theory behind this is that the early forties are often a time of unfulfilled ambition. It is also the time when we face the uncomfortable process of seeing reality. Our fifties are the years when we have come to terms with ourselves. We have a more practical view of the world and our place in it.
Why you should read it
What makes this book a useful guide is Levitin’s reference to case histories from his practice as a neuroscientist. He also describes at some length events in his personal experience, illustrating the points made in the text.
In this book, which is the UK edition of Successful Aging, he gives actionable advice for us to follow at every decade of our lives. He debunks previously held beliefs about memory loss and explains the evolutionary power of our brains from infancy into old age.
For any retiree, this is a most valuable textbook for retirement. It explains what to do to make retirement meaningful.
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