Half watching the US comedy VEEP a couple of nights ago, someone uttered the phrase ‘About as useful as a 40 year old woman!’ which quickly snapped up my attention. I looked at my husband mouth a gasp!
I don’t like that I’ve just turned 40. In fact I hate it. I do suddenly feel like I don’t have as much point in the world. Of course this is very superficial. I know that in reality I’m being ungrateful and childish, after all I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, I have a career and so on and so forth – but that doesn’t make it feel alright. On frequent occasions (usually when I look in the mirror) it makes me sad, saps the hope out of me and as a result makes me much less fun to be around.
So why this fear? In today’s world I am only half way through my life. And if I’m lucky enough not to suffer from ill health, I have more of my life left to be useful than I’ve already had (given that we’re more or less dependent on our parents until we’re 18). With a lot more experience and better judgement to boot. The fear, in large part stems from the primitive brain, but not in the way we might imagine.
I, and those like me, am less concerned about death itself than living a life where we don’t belong. Our brains have evolved to encourage belonging, and ideally, belonging to the most superior group. Fifty thousand years ago when our brains stopped evolving the most superior group consisted of attractive young adults all at the peak of their reproductive health (N.B. the women’s window for this was narrower than mens). This in biological terms was the most likely route to survival of the genes. Fit, young, healthy and attractive couples produce healthy offspring and strong parents were better able to nurture and protect their babies.
Today, this is not a concern (e.g. a 72 year old has just given birth in India). The more primitive parts of our brain however still think it is, and the world around us exacerbates the feeling that we no longer belong. Not so much through comic one liners (which in context are actually quite funny) but because the majority of media outlets produce images of fit, young and attractive people, predominantly female. As a result we are continually reminded that as 40 year old women we are no longer good enough to be part of the ‘superior’ in-crowd. We have been rejected and there is no way to get back in, which can make us feel pretty desperate.
Neuroscientific evidence shows us that the brain responds in a similar way to rejection as it does to severe pain, making it something we will avoid at all costs. And when we are in pain, or under threat our brains respond by moving into an emotionally driven survival mode. Hence for people like me the thought of turning 40 doesn’t stand a chance of any rational perspective.
The irony is, that once we are able to step back from this need (or accept being 40), happiness levels increase, as we get older. We are more able to manage our primitive drivers, or in everyday language we are less worried about what other people think and more able to deal with our emotions. We are also better at working from our more advanced neocortex, seeking purpose and meaning and giving back to society which are also factors that have a massive impact on living a happier life. So life generally gets better.
What’s the moral of this story? Firstly, if we could (me as the prime candidate) learn to manage our primitive drivers more effectively we would be much more comfortable about aging. And secondly the world around us supports the wrong bits of our brain, particularly given our ageing population. We need more stories of older people succeeding in the workplace and beyond, starting new things, and looking great without plastic surgery etcetera etcetera. That way, at least when we do get older, the group that belong to looks like a good place to be.
Carstensen LL, Turan B, Scheibe S, Ram N, Ersner-Hershfield H, Samanez-Larkin GR, et al. Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging. 2011;26:21–33
Carstensen, L L, Turan B, Scheibe, S, Ram, N, Ersner-Hershfield, H, Samanez-Larkin G R, Brooks K P, Nesselroade J R. Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, Vol 26(1), Mar 2011, 21-33