What Age Are You in Your Head?
Part One of “What Version of You are You”
How old are you in your head? Quickly, without giving it much thought—there is no right answer here, after all (well maybe there is, but keep reading). I'm not asking how old you feel. But how old are you? In your thoughts.
Go ahead, take a few seconds.
Okay, all done? Good. I'll go first. I’m 47.
Now your turn. If you answered—you did answer, right? If not, please go back and play along—and you’re like most adults over 40, you gave an age that is around 20% younger than you actually are. I’m 58, so mine was less by 19%, which I feel pretty good about, even though there are some days I might feel older, or days when I look in the mirror and my first thought is what the fuck. But then I remember that there are other days where I think I'm 36, or 29, or 18. Generally speaking though, I’m a pretty solid 47.
At first though, full disclosure, I wanted to say I am 42 because that’s the age I felt the most in shape—the most fit, most healthy, most focused on my physical wellbeing. But this is not a question about health or fitness. Certainly those things play a part, yes, but it’s our mental wellbeing that provides the response. So, I apologize for making you do this test without giving you more time to think about it. I guess there is a right answer in a sense. (You have my permission to go back and run the question again).
The point, anyway, is not the number—really, it is just a number. The point is that there is a difference, with one age co-relating to our birth certificate and the other tied to our physical and mental health. It has a name, too, apparently, subjective aging, and has become, in the words of David Robinson, an author with BBC’s 100 Year Life, “an important part of the science essential to understanding the reasons that some people appear to flourish as they age, while others fade”.
There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction. — Salvador Dali
What exactly does it mean to flourish and why do I associate it with the being 47? Not sure. I do know that at 47 years old I had experienced many of the events that helped shape my philosophy on life and living: war, divorce, the death of a parent, a challenging career change, estrangement of family, the life-altering illness of a child. These were all difficult in the moment, to be sure, but all very helpful in developing the kind of character and virtues that help guide one toward the path of becoming more conscientious, less neurotic, more involved in the pursuit of experiences rooted in joy, longing, and satisfaction, embracing mental wellbeing as well as the physical, learning from the past in order to thrive in the present and finding worthwhile purpose in and through meaningful work and relationships.
If it sounds unfinished, it is. In that way, I think, we are all aspiring adults, caught between the lightyears of youthful exuberance and the age at which Betty White said gravity takes over.
Perhaps that's what it means to flourish, it's the reward for shying away from death’s door by subtracting eleven years from reality. At least one study on the topic, however, suggests that while a lower subjective age may be predictive of better health, there are “other populations around the globe for whom it is not necessary to feel younger. And they’re not less healthy.” In Japan, for instance, where people tend to live longer, there is also a more positive attitude toward aging: Older citizens are not written off but celebrated by their community and more importantly by themselves, allowing themselves to fall in love, participate in dance, exercise, and in continuing education.
This makes sense, and not just to me, Franca (57 in real life, 45 in her head) agrees. When asked the same question I posed above, what age are you in your head, she struggled with her answer. She wasn't able to entirely shy away from, perhaps like many of you, past levels of fitness, of health, occupation, and appearance, which all manage to bugger up all manner of questions, not just this one. They caused her pause and got in the way of the real answer, which is "Now. I feel now is how old I am. Now is my favorite age." And it's true, she, like me, and many others I'd guess, have little interest in trading, even in pretend, the agency available to us from having experienced the trials, errors and revelations that come with age, for some earlier, less qualified moment in time.
It's a sentiment shared by many as a recent article in The Atlantic alludes: “If you mentally view yourself as younger—if you believe you have a few pivots left—you still see yourself as useful; if you believe that aging itself is valuable, an added good, then you also see yourself as useful. In a better world, older people would feel more treasured, certainly. But even now, a good many of us seem capable of combining the two ideas, merging acceptance of our age with a sense of hope.”
I remember well being 47. I remember the energy and exuberance that still existed in me. I remember the hope and promise of the decades to come. So much was still ahead of me, so why not carry that age into the future, where I’m eleven years older, wiser, with even greater experience, and put it all to good work creating a better version of myself?
At the end of the day it’s not like I’m fooling anyone. Most of our friends tend to be people younger than us—many not yet 50, some not even 40—who probably think they are still in their 20s and 30s in their heads, but, nonetheless, accept us, both the old and the young editions of ourselves, with love, kindness and equality. They know the truth of our ages and with time will understand, if they don't already, that we are all so much more than Popeye's version of I am what I yam and that's all that I yam. We'll cover that next time with the question, What Version of You are You?
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