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Ageing Well Depends on Trust, Forgiveness and Generosity

02/04/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Mature Adult Eating (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

I gave myself a pleasant surprise recently when responding to a friend's question on how I would spend my days after opting out of full time work at 60. "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do," I said honestly, "but I trust life!"

Even as I spoke, memories of an earlier time of agonising career and life changes assailed me with the nameless insecurities a single mother of two young boys can experience.

How had this blithe spirit surfaced? It had crept in quietly during years of surmounting challenges, finding some good solutions and eventually, true happiness. In my darkest days I was jobless, penniless, seriously sick with two babies and a breaking marriage. But I was never alone and with time, faith has spread from my family and friends of six decades to my neighbours and beyond. Despite those dark days, the experience of a lifetime shows us the majority of people are 'good' and interested in being happy themselves. In the long run, trust underpins all endeavours.

Now, researchers from the Northwestern and Buffalo Universities in US, say there is a growing ability to trust and forgive as we age and it plays an important role in overall well being as we get older.

Researchers tracked over 200,000 people in two studies, most of them for over three decades, and concluded: "We know that older people are more likely to look at the bright side of things. As we age, we may be more likely to see the best in other people and forgive the little letdowns that got us so wary when we were younger," says Claudia Haas co-author of the Northwestern study. Part of this change, she says, comes from the growing inclination to give back as we age.

I find echoes of this among friends: "At this age (around 60), we don't want to have fights and unpleasantness," they say. I see divorced partners renewing ties, college friends who drifted apart coming together to celebrate late milestones and rival professionals burying the hatchet once most of the race is over.

Nurturing the innate desire to drop grudges, forgive and get on with enjoying the sunrise years makes sound biological sense as many wellness studies among older people have shown. Those with these qualities tend to escape the isolation of old age that comes with the loss of loved ones and growing decrepitude. Far from being crusty and complaining, many elders remain engaged and are giving back to society in growing numbers everywhere.

Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar, India's top two philanthropists are in their 70s. The top 10 givers in India fall within the age group 63-85 according to Hurun's Global Rich List. Those who may be less wealthy, are volunteering, heading a myriad charities and account for a significant chunk of the profits of the leisure industry.

In a world that worship youth, it's the mature qualities of the later years that brings a sense of fulfillment.

Friends who quit their formal working lives with a feeling of never having exploited their potential are sometimes bitter. So are those who made it big--often by smothering their own code of conduct. When they move into the next phase of life they may surprise themselves by discovering their own ability to let go of life's disappointments and make the most of what they have--often it is significant even if they never saw their names in neon lights.

They will find new moorings in birdsong at daybreak for now they have the time to stand and stare. Or in the arrival of a new family member of the third or fourth generation. They will transfer their wealth--both material and experiential knowledge--to their children and they will elicit wonder as they describe a world their grandchildren can only dream of. Before internet. Before air travel. Before massive urbanization. Before transaction replaced trust and ageing was viewed as a liability instead of with reverence.

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