What it is and why you might want to try it now
If you’re exhausted and overwhelmed as we navigate an uncertain future—thanks to the pandemic, climate change, and world issues, to name just a few—you’re not alone.
“For many, the current reality encompasses a daily web of risk assessment, upended routines, and endless news about the state of COVID-19 in the world, America and our individual communities,” write the authors of a survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association in August.
Aging can sometimes exacerbate these feelings. As we age, the losses—of people, our jobs, our routines, our vacation plans or lunches with friends—become more profound. Uncertainty about the future can be crippling.
But psychological experts say there’s a way out of the “hamster wheel” of grief and regret over the past and fear of what’s to come. It’s called mindful aging, and with a little practice, mindfulness can help you put aside your anxieties and live your best life going forward.
“You can become happier with yourself and your life, engage more in the world around you, and feel more fulfilled when you age mindfully,” writes Andrea Brandt, a psychotherapist, speaker and author of the book, Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy, in an email.
“People don’t often see it this way, but aging offers you a profound opportunity. You both know yourself a lot better than you did when you were younger, and it’s very likely you have more free time to pursue activities you love,” she says.
The first step, says Brandt, is to explore what brings you joy mindfully—in the present moment.
“Craft a vision for a life you would love and then adopt an approach and the strategies you need for bringing that vision to life,” she says.
“Society sends us this message that older age means retiring from the world and your life. But it doesn’t have to be like that,” Brandt says. “When you age mindfully, you accept the realities of aging and then focus on the opportunities your age provides. It means pursuing your dreams and being your authentic self.”
Mary Gallant, a professor in the school of public health at the University at Albany, says embracing joy as we age can be difficult for older adults of a certain generation, who grew up largely seeing aging depicted in media and movies as a disability.
“In our society, there are a lot of negative stereotypes about aging, and as people age, they internalize those negative stereotypes, and that causes them to have negative experiences in aging,” says Gallant, whose work and research focuses on promoting a more positive aging experience.
Mindful aging, she says, is about accepting the negative, but looking for positive aspects of aging as well and “recognizing that as people age, they can accomplish new things, learn new things and have a good quality of life.”
Research suggests that on average, happiness and life satisfaction increase as we get older, says Gallant. “That’s very consistent with this mindful aging concept, of living in the present, not regretting what has happened in the past, not worrying about the future, and kind of embracing and accepting [the right now].”
Mindfulness is not a new concept, adds Gallant. “As it applies to aging, it really means accepting the changes that come with aging, not focusing solely on the negative changes but recognizing and embracing the positive aspects as well,” she says.
For Allie Middleton, an Albany-based transformational mind-body coach and consultant who’s about to turn 70, that means a focus on staying “young at heart, or lifted in a heart-centered way, knowing we can shift the way we feel in every moment.”
“I’ve watched other people not being very happy in their minds, bodies and spirits even in their 50s,” she says, “so it’s become this very interesting new view that everything is possible.”
In practice, Middleton says, mindfulness is simply being more present to each and every moment. “Mindfulness means not only being present to what you’re thinking about—both those habitual (unconscious) thoughts and those lovely, present thoughts—but also those sensations in your body and the feelings that arise from those sensations,” she says.
“The easiest way to do that is to notice that we are a body and we’re connected to the space we occupy as a body,” Middleton says. “So each of us gets to have an awareness of our particular spot on the planet, right now.”
The next step, she says, is to place your attention more carefully on your breathing, focusing on each breath as it goes in and out.
“Extending the exhale, breathing out longer, will naturally relax the body, and the reverse, extending the inhale will energize the body,” Middleton says. “No matter whom I’m with, breathing is the most predictable change practice for people to settle into a more mindful awareness. Sometimes I say, ‘Let’s take a moment and pause. Take a breath, look around and see what gives you pleasure.’”
The third step, she says, is to bring to mind something you love. “As we extend our attention into the world, we should be very careful to make sure they’re positive influences we’re paying attention to,” she says of what we allow to enter our thoughts and dwell there.
“We try very much, in any kind of mindfulness arena, to have an awareness that we can shift away from the negative and toward the positive. … Once that starts to become a habit or a practice, then the whole day, the whole world is shifted.”
Middleton points to a growing trend of aging activists. One example is Third Act, a national movement started last year to rally people over age 60 to campaign on issues such as climate change, racial equity and the protection of democracy.
Co-founded by Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker columnist and climate activist, and Vanessa Arcara, an environmental activist and president of Third Act from upstate New York, the organization aims to harness the skills and resources of older adults to bring change.
“[Mindful aging] becomes also about ‘meaning-making,’ or how we can be in service to the world,” says Middleton, “rather than spending our years as we age protecting our memories and our belongings.”
It’s easy to fall back into “that hamster wheel of agitation and anxiety,” she says, “and we forget that, ‘Oh, if I just took a deep breath and a long exhale, look at all I could be paying attention to.’
“When you let go of thinking [things] should be different, you are creating space in your conversation for more awareness, more mindfulness, more capacity to open” and shift into a more compassionate place, she adds.
Brandt says her book, published in 2017 by PESI Press, offers tips and “a lot of step-by-step activities to help you figure out what you can do to build a life you will love and build loving relationships or put a spark back in your marriage (or whatever romantic partnership you have).
“I wanted to show people how older age can afford them a huge opportunity—the ‘opportunity of a lifetime,’ as I put it,” says Brandt. “Your life can expand and become this big, thrilling, adventurous thing no matter how old you are.”
There’s more to aging mindfully than the three steps below, but experts say they’re a great way to practice being “in the moment” anytime you feel yourself ruminating on the past or hand-wringing about the future.
- Step 1: Ground yourself
- Step 2: Breathe
- Step 3: Think about something that brings you joy