Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Aging Well

We do not expect babies to walk at six months but we do expect them to be toddling around by 18 months. Years of focused research and the practical experience of generations of parents have given us a pretty sound view of the stages of infancy through childhood and into young adulthood. We even understand that mid-life often brings crisis but when it comes to the last stage of life, which the bubble of boomers are now entering, we find ourselves asking "What's it all about?"

As our life expectancy increases, what is the purpose of the 20 or 30 years that stretch beyond child rearing, beyond career, beyond keeping up with the Jones? Now that we finally have time, what do we do with it? And, who are we if we're not our kids, our jobs, our stuff?

A study at Harvard that's been going on for over sixty years may help us answer some of those questions. Documented in the book Aging Well by George Vailant, M.D. (and more briefly in an article in The Atlantic), this study spells out a series of tasks for successful life and I've added questions that relate to each task.

Identity - Who am I? Separating from family and developing a sense of ourselves as individuals.
Intimacy -- Who will I let fully into my heart? Learning to live with another person in an interdependent, committed relationship and expanding the sense of self to include another.
Career Consolidation -- What is my work? Expanding personal identity to assume social identity within the world of work.
Generativity -- How can I help others? Developing the capacity to care enough to give away self and time, especially to the young.
Keeper of the Meaning -- What meaning can I preserve for the future? Taking care of and conserving and preserving our collective culture and institutions.
Integrity -- What is my relationship to spirit? Accepting the cycle of life and sharing the wisdom that a life-time of experience brings.

These tasks are more of a spiral than a linear progression and we keep circling in and out of them as we continue our journey through life. But, the Harvard Study shows that making progress on these tasks aligns with the sense of having a "good life."

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