By Mike Sarraille and Jason Boulay
There are many ways to achieve excellence at different stages of life. A positive mindset and the ability to use the flow state are the most important among them.
If you're unfamiliar, a flow state occurs when someone is so focused and absorbed in an activity that their perception of time and self-awareness takes a back seat. Athletes often refer to this as being in the zone, while artists might refer to it as a creative trance. Whatever the terminology, it's a powerful tool that allows us to achieve extraordinary things.
The late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow theory in the 1970s. It has since been further researched, developed, and promoted by Steven Kotler, New York Times bestselling author, performance expert, and recent guest of Men's Journal's Everyday Warrior Podcast.
In a society that worships youth and eschews the folds of experience, one might assume that aging is a murky journey toward inevitable decline. This article examines how researchers like Kotler are turning the tide on the perceived downward trend in aging.
First, we must believe
The inexorable passage of time may be an unrelenting force, but the human spirit is no less relentless. Countless people do not let themselves be defined by age and remain at peak performance well into their golden years.
Is it a genetic gift, or can we learn from them about aging with grace and, more importantly, with meaning?
Psychologists and gerontologists have long studied the effects of mindset on aging, and their findings are fascinating and inspiring. A positive attitude, it seems, can do more than lighten the mood. It can also significantly affect cognitive function, physical health, and overall well-being.
After 20 years of research, the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement found that those who remain optimistic in the second half of their lives can live seven and a half years longer. In other words, to excel in old age, we must first believe we can.
A time of renewal
But what exactly does a positive mindset entail? It goes beyond simple optimism or a fondness for seeing the glass half full. Instead, it embraces a broader worldview that encourages personal growth, adjustment, and resilience. As the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "This new day, with its hopes and invitations, is too dear to waste a moment on yesterday."
Of course, cultivating such a mindset is easier said than done. We need to question the societal norms and expectations that shape our understanding of aging. Far too often we view the passing years as an inevitable descent into decline, a steady erosion of our physical and mental abilities, culminating in a life of dependency and passivity. But with the right perspective, aging can be a time of renewal, a time of exploration and self-discovery full of possibilities.
Consider the groundbreaking research of Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University who has spent decades studying the effects of mindset on aging. In one of her most famous experiments, the Counterclockwise Study, Langer invited a group of elderly men to spend a week in a monastery that was being recreated to replicate the 1959 world. Surrounded by the music, clothes and trappings of their youth, the men soon showed measurable improvements in their physical strength, flexibility and cognitive abilities.
Langer's conclusion? The spirit can be a powerful ally in the quest for vitality and longevity.
Kotler, who has written extensively on the science of human performance, says the flow state is accessible to everyone, and while "it helps to start young, we know from the data that interventions can be made at any age, even the late Eighties and nineties are possible move the needle."
However, unlocking these superpowers requires more effort as you get older. Individuals need to maintain a strong sense of identity and purpose, engage in creative pursuits, train their bodies against physical fragility, and overcome their natural risk aversion.
According to Kotler, the formula for excellence includes engaging in dynamic sports like tennis or skiing, pursuing creative hobbies like playing an instrument or immersing yourself in amateur photography, and participating in social activities that foster a sense of belonging and community.
The specific tracking is less important than the process. What matters most is achieving a continuous cycle of growth, risk, and reward that keeps us grounded in the present.
The next chapter
The most important lesson we can learn is that the passage of time need not be a harbinger of decline and that the secret to our golden years lies not in the fountain of youth but in our hearts and minds.
In this brave new world, the only limits are the ones we impose on ourselves. By embracing a positive mindset and the lessons in Kotler's new book, Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad, we can challenge our cultural obsession with youth and celebrate the wisdom that only time can provide.
The Talking Series is a weekly segment that digs deeper into topics discussed by guests on the Men's Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. A new episode of the podcast is released every Tuesday.