Scholars on Aging Series: Early Studies on the Psychology of Aging

More on Eudaimonic Well-Being

One can easily get lost in all the articles and books about aging. I’ve been trying, with little luck, to narrow my focus to mostly four topics listed in this blog’s title: “the philosophy, psychology, sociology and spirituality of aging.” It’s obviously a wide spectrum. So, to par things down a bit, I started looking specifically into one area, psychology.  I chose psychology because in my mind it seems to be the easiest topic to understand in comparison to philosophy, sociology, and spirituality.

It can be said that all four topics are equally complex. I feel psychology has more practical applications for living productively than the other three topics. Philosophy and spirituality are more up in the clouds, and my readings in sociology are not as extensive, but I’m working on it.

Human Flourishing
So far my excursion into the psychology of aging as it relates to older adults has introduced me to several interesting scholars who have been writing about how we can continue to progress toward higher and more widespread levels of human flourishing.

As defined by the National League of Nursing:

Human flourishing is an effort to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment within the context of a larger community of individuals, each with the right to pursue his or her own such efforts. It encompasses the uniqueness, dignity, diversity, freedom, happiness, and holistic well-being of the individual within the larger family, community, and population. Achieving human flourishing is a life-long existential journey . . .

A small sampling of scholarly standouts, in alpha order, has thus far emerged, some of whom are psychotherapists: Roy Baumeister, Gene Cohen, Victor Frankl, James Hillman, Carl Jung, William James, Thomas Moore, Carol Ryff, Martin Seligman, and a good number of others.

Oftentimes, as I look through the psychology of aging stuff, elements of philosophy and spirituality come strongly into play, such as all the relatively new research on Eudaimonic Well-Being (EWB) and Hedonic Well-Being (HWB), which take many clues from the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. This is not surprising given that the etymology of the word psychology means study of the soul.

I feel that finding some sort of life-balance grounding with both EWB and HWB characteristics could be the best and simplest model for achieving increased and more widespread levels of human flourishing.

Here are two short definitions:

EWB is about becoming your authentic self and doing something intrinsically motivating for the greater good over time throughout one’s life.

HWB takes into account those at-the-moment pleasurable experiences that feel great and wonderful but are ultimately fleeting in the end.

EWB and HWB form only one tributary of a long and winding psychology stream that meanders and changes course quite frequently. Baumeister and Cohen, for instance, are the positive psychology guys; Frankl is about logotherapy; Jung, Hillman and Moore are the depth psychologists.

Eudaimonia’s Core
Regarding EWB, I allude again to Carol Ryff’s six factors (see them here) and define them as I (a novice) see them, which may not match up with Ryff’s imprint, who is the expert from decades of research she has conducted on psychological well-being.

In a March 2017 article, she re-presented six components/core dimensions of well-being. She refers to these in numerous other articles published in a variety of academic journals over the past 30 years. In this article, she calls them out as being enthusiastically accepted and frequently cited by the scientific community since 1989, when she first developed them. This is something she likes to point out quite frequently in the numerous papers she has authored. The six are autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.

Here’s my personal explanation of the six core dimensions of well-being:

  1. Autonomy (Do Your Thing) – You honor and pursue your authentic self, which you are entitled to no matter how you behave, look, or feel, as long as you are not hurting or disturbing another human being. You are the master of your fate.
  2. Environmental mastery (Live Where You Want) – You live where you want, when you want, or you continue to work toward moving to a place that is best suited to your liking and within your means.
  3. Personal growth (Always Learn) – You stay curious and are open to learning over your entire life.
  4. Positive relations with others (Be Nice) – You practice tolerance and peace. You operate under the notion that you do not know the outlines and contours of another person’s travails and you thus respect and do not judge others. You are capable of love.
  5. Purpose in life (Your Raison D’etre) – This is a biggie, and it’s not so easy to find. Many of us find it in our family life, but it’s typically more than that. It’s where you put your efforts toward something larger than yourself.
  6. Self-acceptance (Love Yourself) – You accept your abilities and your liabilities, don’t beat yourself up, and keep going back to number one, being your autonomous self.

All six are EWD-oriented. HWD would be a by-product.

Well-Being Enhancements
In an article published in 2014, Ryff surrounded her six components around six thematic areas, one of which I will briefly address here: “development and aging.” Here Ryff pointed to numerous studies targeting characteristics that enhance EWD as you grow old. Three that stood out for me, among others not mentioned here, include the practice of extracting autobiographical memories, changing and maintaining realistic goals, and feeling younger but not wanting to be younger.

For what it’s worth, as a personal example, I have found these three to be extremely helpful as I navigate through my early old age phase of life. For example, due to the prevalence of remembrance- thinking that occurs more frequently now, I decided to engage in writing my memoir and have a solid 20,000 words so far. By taking a closer review of my past life, I have been reminded that, yes, I have achieved some significant milestones and conquered some intense challenges. I’ve made a dent in the universe, albeit a very small one. But at least I have made a dent, and I can continue to make a dent by thinking about and strategizing new goals more congruent to the realities of my aging self. Engaging more frequently in memories has also made me recall how I don’t miss all those trying times when my decision-making processes lacked wisdom that blossomed as I grew older.

The 7th Core Dimension
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to add one item to the list of core dimensions: thinking deeply, which may not be a strong contributor to HWD but certainly applies to EWD.

  1. Thinking deeply (Know Thyself) – I have written about this in a previous post. It could be a sub-category for #3, personal growth, but I think it deserves its own singular spot as a core dimension for well-being. I’m a strong advocate for living a more contemplative life as I age, which is not for everyone. I feel that the constant push in our Western society to continue working well into our seventies and eighties, as opposed to kicking back more frequently, is not healthy. Old age, in my opinion, should allow us to place work second or third to such things as walking in nature, artistic-oriented pursuits, enjoying family, partaking in sensibly chosen socially engaging activities, seeking more fun, lifelong learning, and figuring out how to help others less fortunate than you when you can, and simply thinking about the meaning of life as it relates to yourself.

There’s a lot more in the psychology literature that offers theories on how we can achieve high levels of EWD and HWD. All of them have valid points and different terminology and definitions. Some seem to be lacking and others are overbearing and banal. These seven here, in my mind, when taken as a whole, are the most comprehensive I have thus far found.

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