Forget aging gracefully. Here’s how to age joyfully

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
How to Age Joyfully

Author’s note: This post was originally published March 28, 2021. It has been updated and republished.

How to Age Joyfully

When I was a kid, growing older felt like an achievement. Each year that passed marked one step closer to adulthood, which for me meant independence and freedom. I remember going to the city with my dad to see plays or go to the Met and seeing a group of women having lunch in a café. It seemed glamorous and exciting to be an adult. I couldn’t wait.

Likewise, I never quite understood the popular antipathy toward old age. At Spencer’s, a novelty store at the Galleria Mall in White Plains where my friends and I would find gag gifts to surprise each other, I was always perplexed by the section of “Over the Hill” merchandise. I mean, my grandparents didn’t listen to my music or play Nintendo with me. But they were cool in their own way — not crusty and out of touch like the caricatures suggested. The geezer jokes and “lying about your age” punchlines that adorned the mugs and t-shirts there seemed to come from another world, one that didn’t make sense to me.

In my 20s and 30s, friends would casually toss around the phrase “we’re so old!” I rolled my eyes.

We were so young — so healthy and happy — why should we waste that youth focused on what was already behind us? After all, right at that moment we were the youngest we would ever be. My 20s were miles better than my teens — more expansive, less cloistered — and my 30s better than my 20s. I became more confident in my 30s, I got into therapy and dealt with years of childhood trauma, I learned to communicate my needs and be more mindful of the needs of others. I wouldn’t trade the growth of these past decades for fewer lines on my face or grey hairs on my head.

Now that I’m in my 40s, though, aging isn’t some future concept. Just being alive means growing older, so yes, we’ve all been aging since we were born. But at a certain point, the notion of what life will be like in a couple of decades starts to feel more real. And then I start to reflect more on what my current choices mean for that future me. I look back and wonder what my work-hard-play-hard 20s mean for me now. Could I have had a healthier body today if I had been kinder to it when I was younger? And could being gentler now give me more joy and freedom in the future?

What does it mean to age gracefully?

The dominant discourse on aging, especially when it comes to women, revolves around “aging gracefully.” This generally involves looking at least three to five years younger than you actually are, while not appearing to do anything to get that way. It also means “acting your age,” by wearing age-appropriate clothes (mini skirts have an expiration date, apparently), having age-appropriate hair, and doing age-appropriate activities — but maybe doing one or two surprisingly youthful things (surfing, maybe, or tap dancing) that don’t seem too try-hard yet let people know you’re still in the game.

As author Heather Havrilesky writes in her biting essay on the topic, “I think about how growing old gracefully really means either disappearing or sticking around but always lying straight to people’s faces about the strength of your feelings and desires.”

“Aging gracefully” entails walking a tightrope between a youth-obsessed society, which tells us that our value declines as we age. Snd a culture that says nothing is as uncool as desperation, the fervent desire for something we can’t have. Marketers stoke our desire for youthfulness as the ticket to remaining relevant, then shame us when our efforts to preserve that youth go awry. So the person who ages without thought to their appearance is written off as “having given up,” and the one whose face remains 35 forever thanks to the surgeon’s knife is considered a joke. And the only way to be deemed acceptable is to have lucky genes or to conceal your battles against time underneath a practiced smile.

How to embrace aging

Rather than continue to walk this exhausting tightrope, we can move beyond this damaging (and frankly misogynistic) mindset to actually enjoy and celebrate getting older.

What if instead of seeing aging as something to defeat and conquer, we were to embrace what gets better with age, and work to amplify these joys while mitigating the losses of youth? I’m not suggesting we paper over the very real challenges to our physical and mental health that come with aging. But can we view these challenges without judgment or shame, and instead look for joyful ways to navigate them?

I certainly think so, and several studies agree. Below I’ve delved into the science of aging to uncover tips for finding joy that research shows will help us feel better as we grow older.

Seek Out Awe

In a study of older adults, researchers found that taking an “awe walk,” a walk specifically focused on attending to vast or inspiring things in the environment, increased joy and prosocial emotions (feelings like generosity and kindness) more than simply taking a stroll in nature. Interestingly, they also found that “smile intensity,” a measure of how much the participants smiled, increased over the eight-week duration of the study. These walks were only 15 minutes long, once a week, and are low impact. So this is an easy way to create more joy in daily life as we age.

Practiced joyspotters well know the power of attending to joyful stimuli in the environment to boost mood. This study suggests that tuning our attention specifically to things that invoke wonder and awe can have measurable benefits, especially for older adults.

Get a Culture Fix

A 1996 study of more than 12,000 people Sweden found that attending cultural events correlated with increased survival, while people who rarely attended cultural events had a higher risk of mortality. Since then, a raft of studies (a good summary here) has affirmed that people who participate in social activities such as attending church, going to the movies, playing cards or bingo, or going to restaurants or sporting events is linked with decreased mortality among older adults. One reason may be that these activities increase social connection, deepen relationships, and reinforce feelings of belonging, which are positively associated with well-being. Yes, getting a culture fix can keep your mind sharp. But it’s also key in maintaining a full and happy life as you grow older.

Stimulate Your Senses

The interior of the Reversible Destiny Lofts, painted in primary colors.

One of the most talked-about parts of my TED talk is when I describe my experience spending a night at the wildly colorful Reversible Destiny Lofts, an apartment building designed by the artist Arakawa and the poet Madeline Gins, who believed it could reverse aging.

The idea that an apartment could reverse aging sounds farfetched, but it becomes more grounded when we look at the theory behind it. Arakawa and Gins believed that just as our muscles atrophy if we don’t exercise them, our cognitive capacity diminishes if we don’t stimulate our senses. They looked at our beige, dull interiors and imagined that these spaces would make our minds wither. And as it turns out, some early research in animals (see also) suggests there might be something to this. When mice are placed in “enriched environments” with lots of sensorial stimuli and opportunities for physical movement, it mitigates neurological changes associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia. While there is some evidence to suggest that this might apply to humans as well, the mechanisms behind this phenomenon are hard to understand.

That said, we do know that the acuity of our senses declines with age. The lenses of our eyes thicken and tinge more yellow, allowing less light into the eye. Our sense of smell, taste, and hearing also become less sharp. So, while you don’t have to recreate Arakawa and Gins’s quirky apartments, enriching your environment with color, art, plants, and other sensorially stimulating elements may be a worthwhile investment not just for protecting your mind as you age, but also your joy.

The Reversible Destiny Lofts as they are seen from the street as colorful, stacked shapes.

Refeather Your Nest

Once you start looking at negative tropes around aging, you start seeing more and more of them. Take the phrase “empty nest,” which carries strong connotations of loss and deprivation. Though I’m currently at a stage where my nest feels quite full, I love the idea of reframing the “empty nest” into something more joyful.

One of my readers, Lee-Anne Ragan, offers up the idea of “refeathering your nest” as a joyful process in the wake of children going off to start their own independent lives. She points out that the idea of an empty nest suggests that there’s nothing left, while refeathering takes a more ecological lens, imagining a kind of regeneration that happens as the home, and the family, transforms into something new. A refeathered nest is a place of possibility, creativity, and delight.

Buy Yourself Flowers

As if you needed an excuse for this one, but just in case, here you go. A study of older adults finds that memory and mood improve when people receive a gift of flowers. Which wasn’t the case when they were given another kind of gift.

Why would flowers have this effect? One reason may link to research on the attention restoration effect, which shows that the passive stimulation we find in looking at greenery helps to restore our ability to concentrate. Perhaps improved attention also results in improved memory. Another possibility, which is pure speculation at this point, relates to the evolutionary rationale for our interest in flowers. Because flowers eventually become fruit, it would have made sense for our ancestors to take an interest in them and remember their location. Monitoring the locations of flowers would allow them to save time and energy when it came to finding fruiting plants later, and potentially reach the fruit before other hungry animals. I have to stress that there’s no evidence I’m aware of to support this explanation, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

Taking it a step further, research has also shown that gardening can have mental and physical health benefits for older adults. So whether you buy your flowers or grow them, know that you’re taking a joyful step toward greater well-being in later life.

Try a Time Warp

In 1981, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer ran an experiment with a group of men in their 70s that has come to be known as “the counterclockwise study.” For five days, they lived inside a monastery with a design to look just like it was 1959. There were vintage radios and black-and-white TVs instead of cassette players and VHS. The books that lined the shelves were ones that were popular at the time. The magazines, TV shows, clothes, and music were all throwbacks to that exact period.

But these men weren’t just living in a time warp. They also had to participate. They were treated like they were in their 50s, rather than their 70s. And they had to carry their own bags. They discussed the news and sports of 22 years earlier in the present tense. And to preserve the illusion, there were no mirrors and no photos, except of their younger selves.

At the end of five days, the men stood taller, had greater manual dexterity, and even better vision.

Independent judges said they looked younger. A touch football game broke out among the group (some of whom had previously walked with a cane) as they waited for the bus home. Langer was hesitant to publish her findings, concerned that the unusual method and small sample size might be hard for the academic community to accept. But in 2010, a BBC show recreated the experiment with aging celebrities to similar effect. Langer’s subsequent research has led her to conclude that we can prime our minds to feel younger, which in turn can make our bodies follow suit.

While it might be difficult to recreate Langer’s study in our own lives, I think there’s something joyful about a mini time warp. Maybe it’s revisiting a vacation spot you once loved, and steeping yourself in memories from an earlier time. Maybe it’s a getaway with friends where you banish all talk of present-day concerns. Or maybe it’s finding a book or a stack of old magazines from back then and reading them while listening to throwback tunes.

It’s worth noting, that a control group from the counterclockwise study who simply reminisced about their youth, without using the present tense, did not experience the same dramatic results — so these “mini time warps” may be more for fun than for tangible benefit. But even if you don’t turn back the clock, checking back in with your younger self can be a way to rediscover parts of yourself you may have lost touch with, and bring them with you as you age.

Maximize Mobility

Exercise is often touted as a way to stay healthy and vibrant at any age, but one finding that makes it particularly relevant as we get older is that movement has been shown in studies to increase the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in learning and memory. This is important because the hippocampus shrinks as we age, which can lead to memory deficits and increased risk of dementia. In one study of older adults, exercise increased hippocampus size by 2%, which is equivalent to reversing one to two years of age-related decline.

In addition to its cognitive effects, movement itself can be a source of joy. The ability to swim, hike, dance, and play can be conduits to a happier, fuller life as we enter our golden years. When I struggle to get motivated to exercise, I often think about my future self, and how investing in my mobility now can help preserve range of motion and minimize repetitive stress injuries later. Simply put: you have one body, and it has to last your whole life. The more you do now to care for it, the more freedom you’ll have to do the things you love late in life.

Stay Up On Tech

While technology is often blamed for feelings of isolation, some studies show that for older adults, being technologically facile can offer a boost to well-being. One reason is that internet use may serve a predictor of social connection more broadly, and social connection is one of the most important contributors toward mental health and well-being throughout life, but especially in old age. Other studies suggest that when older adults lack the skills to be able to use technology effectively, it leads to a greater sense of disconnection and disempowerment, and that offering training to older adults on technology can promote cognitive function, interpersonal connection, and a sense of control and independence.

It’s often tempting, when a radically new app or device comes out, to say “That’s for the kids,” and ignore it. With free time so scarce, exploring new tech feels less appealing than digging into one of the books piled up on my nightstand. And anyway, unplugging is supposedly good for us, right? But technology shapes the world we live in, and those technologies that seem new and fringy in the moment often end up in the mainstream, influencing the ways we communicate, work, and access even basic services.

I remember trying to teach my grandmother how to use email.

She was someone who never wanted to bother anyone, and I thought that email’s asynchronous communication would be good for her. Instead of calling, she could just send a note and know that she wasn’t interrupting anyone. She tried, but she struggled to learn it. She had stopped caring about technology long before that, and the leap to figure out how to use a computer was too great. Small choices not to engage with a new technology don’t matter much in the moment, but once you get a few steps down the road to disconnection, it can feel intimidating to try to plug back in.

Staying engaged with new technologies doesn’t have to be a burden. It might simply mean saying yes when a niece or nephew invites you play Minecraft. Or opening a Tiktok account just to check it out. You don’t have to master every new app or tool. But being comfortable with new developments can help you ensure you don’t end up feeling helpless or blindsided when the tech you rely on every day changes.

I think a lot about something psychologist Alison Gopnik said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. She said that each new generation breaks paradigms and overturns old ways of doing things as a matter of course. This isn’t gratuitous. It’s how we move forward as a society. Each generation of kids will remake the world, and from this we’ll gain all kinds of new discoveries. So as we age, we have a choice: we can either cling to the world as we shaped it and refuse to engage in the new world our kids’ and grandkids’ generations are creating, or we can adapt to their world and remain curious, active participants in it.

This to me is at the heart of aging joyfully.

Our goal shouldn’t be to cling to youth as we get older, but to keep our joy alive by tending our inner child throughout our days, while also nurturing our connection to the changing world. In doing so, we balance wisdom with wonder, confidence with curiosity, and depth with delight.

Images: Top, The Confetti Project. Others, by the author.
June 20th, 2023


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    Discussion (16 Comments)

  1. Mary McK. on March 28, 2021

    This may sound too out-there but I think depression is widespread among older adults, particularly women, and one reason for this is that a large number of us have untreated or undertreated thyroid disease. I am finally starting to get properly treated for this and as I gradually increase my medication towards reaching optimality, I’m finding I feel increasingly happy. For years doctors have told me I needed antidepressants, but I think I just needed more T3 hormone! Of course this won’t help everyone  feel more joyful, b ut it certainly seems to be working  for me!

  2. Laura Lee on March 28, 2021

    This was an eye-opening article for me. I am 55 and at a stage where age is really starting to take its toll on my mind and body. So during this past year, what did I do about it? I decided to go back to school to finish my master’s degree and started learning to play golf with my husband. I keep asking myself, “What are you thinking??” and constantly wanting to just quite school, but I continue the journey. Why am I doing this? Because I feel so much more alive, and challenged. Each day I push myself to learn just a little more and do just a little more to get better. It has helped me to push through pains that had started to keep me glued to the couch and make small improvements every day. So your article resonated with me and made me smile just a little wider knowing that I started doing the right things to bring me more joy without even realizing it. I also echo your words on how the beautiful greens of nature have brought a vitality back into my life that was seeping away.

  3. Dee on March 28, 2021

    Love your post but would like to add another way to maximise joy in your life as you age. And that is to celebrate the good things about ageing. Eg a wealth of experience to draw on so you are not captured by the latest fad, political speak etc. A lot more time to do what you want, partcicularly if you are retired, (I am now fitter and more creatively engaged than ever before). More confidence to speak up for yourself or to do what is right for you. More perspective to realise what is important, like awe and relationships. . More opportunity to think about things in a broader way. I could go on but the idea is to reverse the stereotypes about ageing being a negative process.

  4. andrea thomas on March 29, 2021

    Dear Ingrid,

    I find your articles so refreshing !! I learned how to open my life to color and me and my niece became joy finders !! You are on my mind every day and contribute to my need for play and joy ! — Warmly, andrea

  5. Naomi Rose on March 29, 2021

    Hello Ingrid, I have enjoyed your writings to this point, and I think this article on aging joyfully is just brilliant, as well as deeply friendly. I am in the age range that needs to take on new and grateful views of life (mid-70s, yet feel much younger than in my 30s, 40s, certainly 20s, in many ways). I never thought through what “aging gracefully implies,” but now that you have explored it here, I can open to the difference between the implications behind “gracefully” and the ageless gifts of “joyfully.” I’m really happy to have read this, and I appreciate the wide and reflective intelligence you bring to this subject. Thank you. I’m going to take this into my awareness as of right now.

  6. Marlene Gallagher on March 30, 2021

    I turned 69 a few days ago, so I guess I have been aging for awhile. I have also been interested in “Joy” for a longer while. ( My daughter’s name is Joy, so there’s a little proof). In the last decade or so I learned the adage “Gratitude is the gateway to Joy”. And then, “Gratitude makes what you have enough”. So, I begin everyday being grateful that I have been given one more day…..then pay attention to all that comes my way….and joy just happens….the happiness that does not depend on what happens.  Be grateful+Pay attention=JOY

    Loved your article! And your book is wonderful!

  7. robyn on March 30, 2021

    Ageism is rampant and unchecked in American society. Like any other “ism,” we all need to step forward to dispel the myths. Your spotlight on this topic is relevant and timely. I also suggest Ashton Applewhite’s book and her ongoing work in this area. Choosing to live joyfully and authentically is the best way to age.

  8. Pearl Squires on March 30, 2021

    Thank you for your encouraging thoughts, Ingrid! 
    I am the one who was hit by a car as a pedestrian.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I see frequent times of gratitude as a life skill which contributes to joy.  And there is so much to be thankful for!   Currently I am super thankful and joyful that I can walk unassisted.  The list goes on.
    I think trying something new has been mentioned.  This week I start art classes.  Exciting and maybe a bit alarming!  But something new for me!

  9. Sue on March 31, 2021

    I agree with Dee, and all that she said resonates with my experiences. I do not like going “counterclockwise” though, because it brings back such unhealthy memories. Instead I have become a 69 yr old child. I paint, I create with clay and yarn, I am surrounded by color and pictures of things I enjoy. I don’t discount my “failures” in my creating, just get excited that I actually had the freedom and courage to attempt something that I was denied as a child. Ingrid, your Joyful approach to life has given me new hope and forward thinking as we have gone through the pandemic. Thank you for following your dreams and giving us the insight into our freedom to pursue our own dreams.

  10. Bruce Lloyd on March 31, 2021

    well worth viewing

  11. Carol Shetler on April 14, 2021

    Hi, Ingrid. I found your observations on aging with joy both useful and enlightening. One of my friends has always described me as “the youngest grown-up I know.” I practice many of the techniques you talk about all the time: finding awe, stimulating my senses, especially with small servings of unfamiliar foods, getting into culture.
    I recently bought a book called 100 Famous Artists, and as I am reading through it, I am noting the names of artists I want to learn more about. I’m about 1/4 of the way through the book, and I have already written down eleven artists about whom I know little or nothing. I chose them because the examples of their work in the book are stunning.
    I keep up with tech, due to my work as an online copy editor. I have recently been working with a writer and his assistant who are even more “technopeasants” ( a term I coined to describe people with limited grasp of computer technology) than I am. I have had to brush up my skills in page layout, online edit tracking, and many others to meet their needs. This project has been a great education for me. The client has been delighted by my work and my willingness and patience to show them what they need to learn to be better writers.
    I am now 63 and have noticed that when I sustain an injury these days, my body is no longer capable of healing entirely on its own. Careful and sustained physiotherapy is a must, both to heal the injury and redevelop the flexibility and tone that will prevent injuries in the future.
    Last but not least, I go out of my way to spend time with people much younger than myself, such as my friends’ grandchildren, and a student I have tutored for four years, since he was 10 years old. I work hard to understand their perspectives and what they think life holds for them in the future.
    How To Age Joyfully is on my “must-buy” list. Thanks so much for writing it.

  12. Carol Shetler on April 16, 2021

    I am using several of the strategies you mention to “age joyfully”. I read widely in many genres, and am learning right now about artists in history who were well-known in their time, but that one scarcely hears of now. My guide is a lovely book by Charlotte Gerlings, called 10o Great Artists. I have taken a book out from my library about Artemisia Gentileschi, who followed the Baroque style of a very famous Italian, Caravaggio. She lived in the middle Renaissance, 1593-1656. As I find other artists I want to learn more about, I will take the same approach to my research. I own some reproductions by Impressionist and Modern artists such as Seurat, Kandinsky and Chagall, but I would like to expand my knowledge of other art periods and styles. Thanks for your suggestions.

  13. Vicki Larson on October 7, 2021

    While I agree with the 8 ways to age joyfully, some are out of the reach or challenging for disabled people and those who don’t have easy access to technology or the financial means to buy themselves flowers. When we reimagine aging, which I believe we must, we need to be inclusive.

  14. Daniel on July 4, 2022

    Thanks so much for this post. Some people just make themselves old, but starting to be living in the past. Not listening to modern music anymore, just the old CDs and records again and again, not up for changing anything or any innovation anymore. Your post was really eyeopening for me! Thanks for that.

  15. Raj Nagatajan on October 22, 2023

    I retired four years ago at 70. Since then, we have been busy packing, moving, and settling in a different US city, and now it looks like life is going on at a steady pace.
    I make most of the recommendationss
     that are in this discourse, but the most interesting thing I do each day is
    remember the details of my entire life
    that I spent so far writing my autobiography. Life is exciting at 74 now.  Thank you for your posting. 

    autobiography.  That is most exciting for me. 


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