LIVES WELL LIVED, HOW DO WE MEASURE IT?

At California Polytechnic State University, students can take a class in the Psychology of Aging. Since I’m qualified if only by my increasing age to know something on the topic, I recently joined a set of older adults from Colorado affiliated with a nonprofit called Senior Planet, matched with a group of students in the class. We met online via Zoom, as so many activities are conducted now, and got to know one another over a series of three meetings, asking each other questions about lives, beliefs, and lessons we’ve learned.

My contact, Alexandra, a senior, is primarily interested in animal science, an area I know nothing about, with the exception of admiring researcher-writer-professor Temple Grandin. Her minor is psychology, which was my major in college. So we were thrown together and asked to determine what we could gain from one another. The details are probably less important than the overall findings although we discovered we have two things in common. We both are INTJ on the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, a psychological approach to categorizing human personalities. And we both periodically suffer from what we call “rocks in our heads,” or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which makes us extremely dizzy.

The other participants were as different as we two. So how do you measure if a life has been well-lived? As Einstein said, “Just because a thing can be counted doesn’t mean it should be counted.” You have to rely on personal opinions.

Interesting to me were the final reports. Nearly all of the older participants advised that success in life does not lie in status, money, titles, or material possessions, but in self-satisfaction, being with loved ones, and feeling a passion about something, whether that’s a cause, a hobby, an activity. Remaining curious was mentioned frequently as a good quality.

As for the students, most surprising were their previous attitudes toward older adults. I think we were running into many stereotypes and ageism: older people are boring and bored, older people are ”fragile,” a term I particularly despise, both physically and mentally; older adults have nothing to share with students. But by the end, and due to the continuing interactions, the students had reversed their opinions. Both younger and older groups felt the project had personally benefitted them.

The basis for the project was Lives Well Lived, a feature documentary film by Sky Bergman, that celebrates the incredible wit and wisdom of adults 75 to 100 years old who are living their lives to the fullest. Encompassing over 3000 years of experience, forty people shared their secrets and insights to living a meaningful life. I found the subjects of the film to be inspiring myself. During these times of mass quarantines, I’ll take as many positive outlets as I can get.