Expectations and aging: finding pleasure in what we CAN do

Dad with the world before him, in 1939

If you’ve seen one person over 80, you’ve seen one person.

I have a large number of older people in my life, including my 95-year-old Dad, to whom this blog is dedicated. A rare few, like Win, a 95-year-old compatriot of my Dad’s, seem to have found a magic elixir. Win recently wrote that he is still driving, keeping up a 4 bedroom house and pool, and only has physical difficulties rising from a chair.  Sheesh! He sounds like me!

Another important person in my life is getting older, and he’s kicking and screaming his way into his “golden years.” He is pissed that women treat him like – well – an old guy. In his mind, he is still virile and desirable. Physically, he’s doing pretty well. He’s a good conversationalist, still enjoys athletic pursuits, and remains involved in business. Emotionally, however, he’s not very happy about this aging thing.

As I’ve written, my Dad’s world is rapidly shrinking. His poor hearing cuts him off from most conversations, and now he has chest pain every time we go for a walk. He’s had to give up beloved pursuits like hunting and fishing. And yet, most of the time, he’s in a good mood. I’d go so far as to call him an optimist. Even though he often comments, “Lo, how the mighty have fallen,” when he carefully tackles the four stairs descending from my house, he takes heart from the fact he can complete a walk at all. “Now that’s the Henry I know,” he’ll say when a walk has gone well.

What’s the difference? Why do some people, even in the face of medical or physical challenges, remain fairly happy?

I was really struck by an article in today’s New York Times about the impact of one’s expectations on one’s well-being. Research reported in Your Brain at Work by David Rock suggests that dopamine is released, causing a feeling of pleasure when something positive happens — that is, if it beats our expectations on the upside. Unfortunately, when an experience is worse than we expect, our negative feelings are stronger than the positive ones we get from the favorable better-than-expected experience. (For you engineers and math lovers, Mr. Rock puts it algebraically: “If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.”

The article concludes:

It seems as if it is best to have low expectations of things out of our control, realistic expectations of things we can control to some degree and high expectations of ourselves.

My Dad has had a lot of experience in his life with things that are outside of his control. He had an influence on the progress of battles for the Pacific in WWII, but he didn’t have control. He couldn’t control the leukemia that eventually claimed my sister in the 1950s. And he could not control his way out of heart disease, although he has been able to successfully manage it since 1963.

He also epitomizes what the article describes in terms of having high expectations for himself. He has emotionally muscled his way through many difficult circumstances.

Who’s happier? The fighting-every-step-of-the-way senior, or my Dad, with far more disabilities at 95. I think I have to conclude that my Dad is. He’s an optimist, but apparently is able to roll with it when things don’t turn out as hoped.

I know we Baby Boomers are going to have a VERY difficult time coming to terms with age. We have changed our world through our sheer numbers, but we will not be able to get God – and medicine – to serve up challenge-free “golden years.” It’s up to us to manage our expectations… and choose happiness.

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