Tag Archives: aging

If You’re Getting Older, You May Be Getting Nicer

We tend to encounter four images of “old people”—two for women, two for men.

The first female image? A kindly grandmother, rather plump, with gray hair pulled back in a bun and a sweet smile on her face. She’s often wearing an apron, as though she just stepped away from baking a batch of cookies. Just look at a display of Hallmark Mother’s Day cards to see some examples. But I don’t see any women resembling this image in my own life. The older women I know tend to be energetic, not very plump, and rarely sporting kitchen aprons.

The second female image is an emaciated crone, with spiky too-dark hair and an angry look on her face. This image turns up as a witch in fairy tales, often borrowed by Hollywood films and omnipresent on Halloween.

The first male image? A sweet old duffer, kind-hearted, not too sharp mentally, hovering over his kids and grandkids whether they want him to or not. Are there men like this out there? Maybe, but I don’t know any. My older male friends are vigorous, sharp as a tack, and involved with their kids sans hovering.

The second male image is a fierce, belligerent guy, his face contorted by rage and/or confusion. To others, he may appear to be well on the road to dementia, imagined or real.

I take issue with these images, especially the angry ones. The truth is that we get nicer as we get older. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal in April 2014, several large research studies have recently shown that a person’s personality naturally changes during adulthood in response to life events. And positive events, like entering a committed relationship, can lead to positive personality changes.

In one study, people reported noticing increases in their positive traits between the ages of 20 and 65. Significantly, they became more agreeable. This study backed up other research by psychologists, who refer to it as “the maturity principle.” Brent W. Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has pulled together some of this research. One finding he’s highlighted is that personality traits continue to change in middle and old age. Specifically, people become more conscientious and emotionally stable as they age.

It’s no secret that friendly, outgoing, responsible people tend to be happier than shy, irresponsible, unsociable people. That’s been known for years. But here’s a new twist, described in the Journal of Personality in January 2014: people who start out being happy tend to become even more so.

Researchers think that “personality” (characteristic ways of thinking feeling and behaving) is about 50% innate and 50% learned. So while many of us may start out being happy and some may become even more so, others can learn to be happier.

Now let’s go back to those angry images. Looking angry doesn’t always relate to feeling angry. Believe it or not, gravity plays a role. If you peruse a bunch of older faces, you’ll notice that the mouth, pulled downward by gravity, can make a person look angry or, at the very least, bored. But guess what. Smiling can erase the effects of gravity. A cheerful smile can transform an older person’s face. By smiling, he or she can suddenly look less angry and, well, younger.

Like the maturity principle, the “facial feedback hypothesis” has been around for a while. It’s a psychological theory that facial expressions can directly influence emotions. In other words, if you’re forced to smile during a social event, the theory holds that you’ll find the event more enjoyable. Charles Darwin was among the first to suggest that physiological changes (such as a smile caused by feeling happy) was not merely the consequence of being happy but also could intensify the feeling of happiness.

Recent studies by psychologists validate this notion and actually go even further. Forcing participants to smile, even when they weren’t feeling especially happy when they began the study, made them feel happier once they smiled.

The “mouth-down” phenomenon may account for the popularity of Botox and fillers injected into the faces of oldsters who want to look younger. A dermatologist in Maryland has in fact studied Botox as a treatment for clinical depression. After looking through 19th-century photos of stony-faced women institutionalized in a French hospital, Dr. Eric Finzi wondered whether the facial feedback hypothesis applied to patients who were depressed. He funded and oversaw two clinical trials studying Botox in people with depression. In the most recent study, he found that six weeks after treatment, 50% of the patients receiving Botox had their depressive symptoms reduced by half or more, compared to only 15% who were injected with a placebo. This remarkable finding demonstrates the power of a smiley face.

Life can be tough. We may face obstacles in our careers, financial challenges, rough patches in our relationships, serious illness, and worst of all, the loss of loved ones. But even though you might not always feel like smiling, you needn’t resort to Botox. The latest research leads to some simple advice: Try smiling. It just might make you feel better.

So…whether you’ve always been a basically happy personality, or you’re working on getting there, a smile on your face can lead to both feeling and looking happier. As a bonus, you’ll probably look younger, too.

In his 1936 film, Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a song later known as “Smile. “ The lyrics include this insight: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.”

Smile, anyone?

Hey There, Handsome!

Hey, handsome!  You know who you are.  You’re a charitable donor to at least one worthy cause you support.

Say what? 

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur C. Brooks, the head of a nonprofit organization, accumulated a wealth of data to support the conclusion that giving to charity makes us happier, healthier, and yes, even better-looking.

First, according to one study cited by Brooks, happiness and giving are strongly correlated.  A survey by the University of Chicago showed that charitable givers are 43% more likely to say they are “very happy” than non-givers.  By contrast, non-givers are 3.5 times more likely to say they are “not happy at all.”  Wow!

But is it really charitable giving that makes us happier, or is it the reverse?  Another study provided one answer.  Researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia found that the amount of money subjects spent on themselves was “inconsequential for happiness,” but spending on others resulted in significant gains in happiness. 

In another study, University of Oregon researchers asked people to divide $100 between a food pantry and their own wallets.  The researchers used a brain-scanner to see what happened.  It turned out that choosing the charitable option lighted up the brain’s center of pleasure and reward, the same center that lights up because of pleasurable music, addictive drugs, and a mother’s bond with her children.

Are we also healthier when we act in a charitable way?  Brooks cited several studies that say we are.  A University of Buffalo psychologist recently studied more than 800 residents of Detroit and found that volunteering for a charity significantly lowered the association between stressful life-events and death. 

Two studies conducted in California lent further support to this notion.  When researchers at Stanford and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging tracked nearly 2000 older Americans over a nine-year period, they found that the dedicated volunteers in the group were 56% more likely to have survived all nine years than non-volunteers who started out in identical health.  A study of teenagers yielded even more support.  In 2008, the University of California reported that altruistic teenagers were physically and mentally healthier later in their lives than their less generous peers.

And now we get to our most intriguing question:  Does being charitable do anything for the way you look?  Dutch and British researchers recently showed women college students one of three videos featuring the same good-looking actor.  In the first video, he gave generously to a man begging on the street.  In the second, he appeared to give only a little money.  In the third, the actor gave nothing to the panhandler.  The result? The more he gave, the more handsome he appeared to the women in the study.

Brooks concluded that this finding explains why men loosen their wallets in an attempt to impress women.  And he uncovered one more study to support his conclusion.  A 1999 experiment conducted by the University of Liverpool showed that “eager men” on first dates gave significantly more to a panhandler than men who were already in comfortable long-term relationships.

In short, giving generously to the causes we support really does appear to boost our well-being and our esteem—even our appearance–in the eyes of others.  Although I have reservations about some of the techniques used by charities to pry money from us (see “Why Am I Suddenly a Member?” found elsewhere on this blog), I wholeheartedly support charitable giving and volunteering on behalf of worthy causes. 

The charitable men in my life have always looked good to me, and as I’ve gotten older, I find they’re looking better and better.

As for me, in addition to my feeling good about giving, I now know that it helps me look good, too.

That reminds me…where’s my checkbook?




Audrey Hepburn and Me

I never thought I had a single thing in common with Audrey Hepburn.  She was tall and decidedly slim.  I’m short and, uh, not exactly slim.  She was a brunette with enormous brown eyes.  I’m a redhead with almond-shaped but not-so-enormous hazel eyes.  She was a famed film star who won an Oscar at 24 (for 1953’s Roman Holiday) while my adolescent dreams of becoming an actress never became reality.

So I never saw myself as having anything in common with this glamorous star of the ’50s and ’60s.  But a quick glance at a recent magazine article has convinced me that I have a few things in common with Audrey after all.

The article, appearing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, is based on a new book, Audrey in Rome, written by her younger son, Luca Dotti.  Luca lived with Audrey in Rome from the time of his birth in 1970 until she left for Switzerland (and he went off to a Swiss boarding school) in 1986.  As the magazine cover proclaims, in his book he recalls “the secrets of her iconic style.”

What were some of these secrets?  Well, for one thing, she was “fond of kerchiefs tied under the chin (not wound around and fastened in back in the French manner).”  Her love of sous-chin kerchiefs is apparent in a 1970 photo showing Audrey in a fabulous Givenchy coat and a scarf tied under her chin.

According to Luca, Audrey’s scarves were “a bit of a vice.”  Although she wasn’t “like Imelda Marcos and shoes,” she had “maybe 30 or 40” scarves.  In Rome, she often wore them along with big sunglasses as a disguise, enabling her “to do her shopping without having…crowds” following her.

This is one style-revelation I share with Audrey Hepburn.  My love of scarves, like hers, could be called a vice, but in view of the small amount of space they occupy and the small sums of money they cost, they’re a pretty harmless one.  I have a colorful collection in every possible fabric, suitable for every season, some bestowed on me as charming gifts, others purchased by me in a weak moment.

I admit I’ve never had crowds following me.  But I wear scarves (usually tied under my chin) for my own reasons.  In chilly weather, they keep my head warm.  On warmer days, they shield my curly hair from humidity and wind.

Childhood photos taken by my father show me, like Audrey, wearing scarves tied beneath my chin.  Ever since then, I’ve worn scarves no matter where I’ve made my home—from Chicago to Boston to Los Angeles.  Now, living in breezy San Francisco, I almost never leave home without a scarf in my jacket pocket, prepared to withstand whatever breezes the ocean blows my way.

Some have ridiculed my penchant for wearing scarves.  A friend once muttered that I liked to wear “babushkas.”  That hurt.  But now I can point to Audrey Hepburn as a scarf-loving style icon who, like me, wore scarves tied beneath her chin.

Another secret revealed by Luca is Audrey’s choice of footwear.  Generally basing her style choices on “simplicity and practicality,” she preferred to wear ballerina flats and low heels.  Vanity Fair claims that she wore them partly to accentuate her long feet, “adding to her elegant attenuation.”  (Huh?  Do you know any women with long feet who want to accentuate them?)  But even VF admits the far more likely reason:  she wore them so she “could walk comfortably.”

So here’s another preference I share with Audrey.  Long ago I gave up wearing high heels.  Like Audrey, I like to stride purposefully through the city, and wearing anything but low heels makes that impossible.  Every day I see women struggling with high heels that inhibit their freedom to move through life with ease.  I ache to tell them to forgo those high heels, and like Audrey and me, walk comfortably and safely wherever they go.

[Please note:  I’ve written another post on this blog, “High Heels Are Killers,” explaining at greater length my opinion of high heels.]

If truth be told, when I was younger, I wasn’t a big fan of Audrey Hepburn.  Maybe it was the way Hollywood portrayed her that was to blame.  After Roman Holiday (in which she fell in love with reasonably age-appropriate Gregory Peck), she was paired with male leads who were far too old for her.  At 28 she was supposedly smitten by Gary Cooper, then 56 (and looking even older), in Love in the Afternoon and by 58-year-old Fred Astaire in Funny Face.  I found these pairings simply baffling.  Why would radiant young Audrey fall for men twice her age?  At the time, I was unaware of the way Hollywood worked back then.  It’s clear to me now that she was complying with the demands of the movie moguls who dictated most of the roles she played.

No wonder she confided to friends that her favorite role was that of the nun in The Nun’s Story.  No superannuated men were slobbering over her in that role!

My view of Audrey Hepburn evolved as I learned more about her.  In her later years, she became an activist on behalf of UNICEF, traveling to more than 20 countries around the globe to advocate for the world’s most vulnerable children.  Her advocacy has endeared her to me, a fellow advocate for the underprivileged.

Moreover, during those years, she openly chose to welcome growing older.  Luca remembers that she “was always a little bit surprised by the efforts women made to look young.”  By contrast, “she was actually very happy about growing older because it meant more time for herself, more time for her family, and separation from the frenzy of youth and beauty that is Hollywood.”  She saw aging as part of the circle of life.

Audrey liked to say that “true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.”

Some may remember Audrey Hepburn as a stunning style icon, but in my view, she should be remembered for much, much more.