Aging Well, George E. Vaillant

Taking data from three extraordinary longitudinal studies, Vaillant modifies Erikson's 8 stages of Psychosocial Development. Vaillant calls the stages of adulthood: Identity, Intimacy, Career Consolidation, Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning, and Integrity. Sharing stories of the individuals in the studies, Vaillant explains both what qualities lead to a long life and, more importantly, what qualities lead to a good life. He brilliantly sums this up, "Objective good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health. By this I mean that it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick." Successful aging has more to do with how you think than your personal history or actual physical health. And it is not our history, rocky as it may have been, that prevents us from having a wonderful old age, rather it is the goodness we encounter that allow it. In Valliant's own words: "It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age."

Although the stages may not happen in the order specified, there are a few restraints. For example, failure to successfully work through the identity stage causes difficulties with Intimacy and Career Consolidation. Vaillant describes the identity stage as the development of a sense of self--knowing one's values, politics, and passions. Intimacy involves the ability to encompass another individual within one's sphere--to create "an interdependent reciprocal, committed, and contented fashion for a decade or more." Career Consolidation involved expanding the connectedness to a social network, created through work and having the specific qualities of "contentment, compensation, competence, and commitment" which can include being a wife/mother or husband/father. These stages have more to do with self-perception than outside observable traits. So, for Career Consolidation, it is not as much about getting paid money as it is about an individual feeling compensated for efforts made, feeling good at what one does, and feeling committed rather than sticking it out.

We presume that much of our audience has passed gracefully beyond these first three stages to the next three: Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning, and Integrity. In Vaillant's words, "Generativity reflects the capacity to give the self finally completed through mastery of the first three tasks of adult development. away." Welcome the building of community. With Generativity comes awareness that we are part of a social network of individuals in which we act for the benefit of the group. Two critical elements of Generativity: care and respect. Here is where the urge to make a difference comes into play. Understanding our relationship to a broader world, we seek to better it, not just for ourselves, but for others. And it turns out to be very rewarding personally: "In all three Study cohorts mastery of Generativity tripled the chances that the decade of the 70s would be for these men and women a time of joy and not of despair."

Keeper of the Meaning, for this stage Vaillant says, "The focus of a Keeper of Meaning is on conservation and preservation of the collective products of mankind the culture in which one lives and its institutions rather than on just the development of its children." Here too, making a difference resides. This stage resonates for MAD Mavens. To not only be responsible for future generations, but also to care for the culture, institutions and environment in which those future generations may prosper. Where Generativity can be found in coaches and mentors, Keeper of the Meaning exists in those in who hand over the past to the future. They may be grandparents, genealogists, historians, or others who honor the past of people and create something from the past to be given to the next generation. Givers in this stage give their time, talents, and/or energy to the arts, the humanities, historical preservation, etc.

Finally, Vaillant describes Integrity. He states "In old age there are many losses and these may overwhelm us if we have not continued to grow beyond ourselves." This growing beyond ourselves also means looking back on life and creating a story--an integrated and meaningful life that could have been no other way. It is a deep and profound acceptance of life's journey, including the journey into death. For this reader, the stage of Integrity has less to do with making a difference in the world, and more to do with finding inner peace with all the experiences of life and the world. Yet, from this stage much can be done to make the world a better place, for an individual's actions are not taken personally but seen as necessary forces. This stepping back to watch the play of life offers rich opportunities for insight.

This text turns many a preconception upside down. Whether it is unlinking good health from happiness, showing that alcoholism destroys more of a person because of the relationships that it cuts off than because of the ill health effects or explaining how a good marriage has a greater effect than low cholesterol; Aging Well offers numerous insights into how to get old and enjoy it. A particularly relevant concept for those entering the second half, Vaillant offers this wisdom: "Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life's enjoyment than retirement income."


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