A recent study conducted in Japan focusing on locals in their 80s and 90s has some sound advice for anyone dreading the prospect of growing old.
Above all else, remain grateful. It sounds infuriatingly simple, but this observed “attitude of gratitude” among Japan’s elderly population helps them remain hopeful despite the many inconveniences and annoyances of old age.
Lead study author Dr. Iza Kavedija from the University of Exeter observed elderly citizens living in a merchant neighborhood of Osaka to produce these findings. Along the way, Dr. Kavedija started to notice that most locals she spoke with carried a “quiet hope” with them each day. This hope allows elders to stay optimistic regardless of common problems that come in old age such as concerns over mental decline or fear of becoming a burden to one’s family.
Life is nothing if not a mixed bag. Some periods feel like everything is going our way, but inevitably everyone encounters some bad luck as well. It isn’t that these Japanese individuals are in denial about the realities of growing old, it’s that they choose to focus on all of the good they’ve enjoyed along the way.
When one’s life is viewed in this way, it makes it a lot easier to believe that everything will work out. And, on that note, Dr. Kavedija says that a belief that “everything will work out in the end, someway” is a key pillar of this attitude of gratitude. After all, if one is lucky enough to make it to 85 or 90 years old, a whole lot has already worked out in their favor.
“As people move through life, through their later years, many experience a sense of loss. But this time for them also offers opportunities to reflect more on life, with a heightened realisation of their interconnections with others. If one habitually invokes the involvement of others and their role in one’s life, one is reminded how much other people have helped them, in countless small and more substantive ways. The same events seem different when one focuses on how others have helped,” Dr. Kavedija explains.
“An attitude of gratitude was embedded in older peoples’ recollections of the past, but also allowed them to think about the present in a hopeful way. A world in which one has received much good will from others is a different place than one in which one has experienced loss, even if the facts of life are the same,” she continues.
In line with greater Japanese culture, much of that good is usually related to family.
“Gratitude in Japan can be seen to a large extent as a recognition of how much one relies on others as one moves through life. Gratitude highlights feelings of interdependence in the social world,” Dr. Kavedija notes.
One recurring theme shared by many elderly Japanese was the notion that they wouldn’t be the person they are today if it weren’t for the people in their life. In greater detail, participants said they’re grateful for having had an opportunity to be a good spouse, loving parent, or even just being lucky enough to have “understanding in-laws.” Equipped with this mindset, the extra aches and pains of old age, or the prospect of depending on one’s children more often, doesn’t seem all that bad.
“While people in Japan might hesitate to say they are happy, gratitude is mentioned frequently. Through appreciation, dependence on others is not seen as simply a burden or a potential source of embarrassment, but also as moving and deeply meaningful. Meaningful relationships and encounters with others comprise a valuable foundation for what Japanese people call ikigai, or that which makes life worth living,” Dr. Kavedija concludes.
You don’t have to be over the age of 80 to benefit from this study. It’s safe to say many among us across various ages could stand to benefit from a bit more gratitude. We’ve been culturally conditioned for a long time to always look toward what’s next, but some reflection on the positives of the past can do a world of good.
The full study can be found here, published in Anthropology and Aging.