You are here

Home » Blogs » ronp's blog

The Power of Belief

The Power of Belief

by Ron Pevny

In recent years, a host of psychological and biological research has been adding its voice to the age-old wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions in emphasizing the importance of belief and attitude in determining how our lives unfold. In fact, today I read the following, from the New York Times:

''Over and over, studies have found that those who hold more positive age stereotypes behave differently as they age than those with more negative stereotypes, even when the groups are similar in other ways, including health status...Older people with more positive views of aging do better on memory tests.  They have better handwriting.  They can walk faster.  They're more likely to recover fully from severe disability.  Those with more positive self-perceptions of aging actually live longer, by an average of 7.5 years."      Let's look at two very different beliefs about aging.

Since the "modern" era began, aging has largely been seen as a time of decline, loss, and withdrawal from active contribution. Look up the word "retire" in the dictionary; most of the definitions include the word "withdraw." Accompanying this view is the belief, held in both overt and subtle ways, that once we retire, "it's all downhill from here." Our best years are over, with us by and large having made our significant contribution to society. Loss of a sense of purpose and meaning, and a flagging of our passions for life, is to be expected. The best we can do is hold on to who we have been for as long as possible, doing our best to stay healthy, enjoying life to the extent our health and finances will allow, finding some volunteer activities to keep us occupied, and hoping things turn out okay.

Contrast this with another set of beliefs that sees aging as a process of development of character analogous to the development of fine wine over time. Aging is understood as a necessary prerequisite for developing the wisdom that comes only from experience and reflection upon that experience. This stage of our life provides time and opportunity for focusing on our deepest values, our personal development, our spiritual life, and our relationships with our loved ones and communities. These decades are not just the final chapter after we have passed our prime, but rather a time full of possibility for fulfillment, meaning, passion and active community engagement—if  we consciously work to make them so.

If we resonate in some way with this second vision of aging, a critical first step in our conscious eldering work is exploring, with as much honesty as we can muster, the beliefs we hold about aging. Being surrounded by the first set of beliefs throughout our lives, most of us have these engrained in our minds and are strongly influenced by them. One way to know how much they influence us is to honestly look at the fears and beliefs we carry about aging. And ask ourselves questions like these: Do I do everything possible to convince myself and others that I not getting older? If so, why? Is my primary focus holding on to my sense of identity as a mid-life adult rather than focusing on hearing that inner call to the rich potentials of the life stage of elderhood?  What can I learn from those people in my lives who serve as models for aging well?  How are my beliefs about aging impacting the way I live my life today and the images I carry about what my future will be like?   

The more we engage in denial, and/or hold on to negative beliefs about what our aging can look like, the greater our risk of being painfully unprepared for the inevitable losses as well as the unique opportunities that accompany us on our journey through the elder third of life.  We have the power to choose the beliefs that shape our lives.  The perspectives and practices of conscious eldering support us in doing so.  My book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging can support you in doing so.