When I close my eyes and imagine an ideal healthy person, I sure don’t imagine my 100-year-old Great-Grandpa Follensbee (GGF), sitting in a wheelchair and smoking a pipe.
But my GGF lived through an entire century (1900–2000!) and he was always smiling… and flirting! He outlived two wives, fathered 13 children, and lived to see his grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. GGF was a wee bit of a rascal, and he sure wasn’t perfect, but he lived a long and happy life, giving to others well into retirement.
So if my happy 100-year-old GGF isn’t wearing that imaginary crown of perfect health, who should be?
Our narrow ideas about what it means to be healthy can end up being more harmful than helpful. These expectations set up standards that can be impossible to meet. You can’t be too old, you can’t weigh too much, you can’t sneak in a donut, and you can’t look like you had a bad day. Sadly, with such a narrow view, you and I would rarely get to wear the sparkly crown of health.
These unrealistic expectations undermine a healthy attitude, and attitude is everything.
Two surprising things matter most for your health: emotional vitality and compassion.
According to a study by Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor at Harvard, emotional vitality—the ability to face life’s stresses with hopefulness and emotional balance—measurably reduces instances of strokes and heart attacks and increases overall longevity. A “glass half-full attitude” can drastically improve outcomes in a scary diagnosis and can help one to navigate unusually stressful times (you know, like living through a pandemic, which my GGF did at age 18!).
Compassion means holding empathy for others, and taking time to show that we care. Compassion is a key teaching in Yoga and other mindfulness practices. Recent studies have shown that those who volunteer have longer life expectancies, and those who actively stay connected to friends and family have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Sometimes building compassion is as simple as asking yourself: How can I be of service to others?
My GGF ran a retirement home with his second wife, Great-Grammie Julia (GGJ), in his 70s and 80s—when he was retired!
Bonus: Compassion actually helps to build emotional vitality—two for one!
The really great news is that emotional vitality and compassion can be learned and practiced over time.
What are some ways to practice emotional vitality and compassion?
- Don’t dwell on your age or your appearances: some people think that aging is a myth
- Focus on making connections with others
- Practice mindfulness and yoga!
- Think of a way to honor someone who embodies emotional vitality and compassion
Embracing this shift in attitude is good for your own health, and becomes infectiously good for the health of the entire world.
My GGF didn’t idolize “healthy,” and he never let his age stop him from serving others.
He lived all of his 100 years to their fullest.
Left, GGF with ox-cart, 1917; Middle, GGF with GGJ at 2nd wedding, 1962, and Right, GGF in 1982.
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Photo: Marc A. Sporys via Unsplash; courtesy of Angie Follensbee-Hall