Thursday, April 19, 2012

I'm My Actual Age? You Must Be Kidding!

Dustin Hoffman, age 74, looking good

Jane Fonda, age 74, looking great

Charles Manson, age 74, not so hot

Dear George,
My eyesight has been bothering me lately, and the opthalmologist decided that time has come for cataract surgery. The first step was to get a pre-surgery physical, so I went in to see Dr. C. last Monday. He looked in my ears, asked me some routine questions, then said he wanted to do some blood work and an EKG. I pointed out that the examination form said that blood work was for people who were anemic. He said that was true, but, because of my age, he was going to do blood work plus an EKG. He added that I don’t look like I’m 74 and I don’t act like I’m 74, but, in fact, I am 74. So he didn’t want to take any chances. This came as a big shock. I guess I put too much stock in how I look and how I act. The idea that there was some firmer underlying reality to my biological age that contradicted these surface appearances was disturbing. Does this mean I am an aged person hidden inside someone who doesn’t look quite that old? The medical assistant came in, drew some blood, and hooked me up to the EKG machine. The EKG looked fine, but I still was rattled by my newly altered sense of self.

I came home and went straight to the computer in order to look at photos of people who were 74. For the most part, they didn’t look that bad, probably because most were air-brushed portraits of celebrities. Some, of course, looked awful. A few were corpses in various stages of rigor mortis. One had died in a burning building. Then I googled “age 74,” and the first thing that popped up was a news story from The Telegraph titled, “We are happiest at 74, says new report.” The story summarized a British survey of 21,000 respondents across the age spectrum who were asked to rate how happy and contented they were on a seven-point scale. On average, teenagers rated their happiness as 5.5, but ratings gradually declined to 5.0 by age 40, then began to rise again. Surprisingly, 74-year-olds recorded the highest average happiness ratings of 5.9. After age 74, ratings began to dip again, perhaps reflecting people’s worries about how much time they have left. : The researchers concluded, "Compared to younger individuals, older people tend to place a greater emphasis on emotional aspects of social interactions and are likely to remember the emotional content of their experiences."

I told Katja about the research, and she said she was feeling pretty happy these days. She thought I seemed pretty happy too. I sort of agreed, though I was still befuddled. Thinking it over, I decided I’d felt persecuted as a child, then so acutely self-conscious during my teenage years that it was impossible to be happy. College was an exciting time, but we spent most of our time trying to be alienated beatniks, and we rejected happiness as shallow and inauthentic. Graduate school was threatening and full of psychic pain, and the early untenured years of my academic career were even more agonizing My 40s and 50s offered a little more security and reward, but they were still full of pressure. All in all, I decided, the British research was right. I’m about as happy at 74 as I’ve ever been. Retirement isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but you are more carefree and get to choose things you like without people pushing you around. I decided that my doctor was probably right, but there’s more to the picture. Even if I look younger but am really older, there are other perks, like happiness and contentment, that come along with it. They should invent an EKG that measures that.

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-Jennifer M (4-20):   :-)

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