As we age, we stop following our physical bliss. The body is pampered rather than challenged. It is told to be quiet, and becomes no more than a receptacle for the mind and spirit. Life becomes a matter of creature comforts. The challenge becomes its ability to withstand the effects of our bad habits. We are no longer athletes. We have become spectators. This will never do . . . Life is not a spectator sport. Only to the good animal come the peak experiences, the joys, the epiphanies.
– George Sheehan
At the age of 45, George Sheehan’s life had already been a smashing success by most societal standards. As an illustrious cardiologist and father of twelve, his days were full to the brim. But he began to feel himself settling into a comfortable existence, and with that came increased feelings of depression and disconnection. So he returned to his roots as a college track star, and began running laps around his backyard often with his kids in tow. At the age of fifty, he became the first man of his age or older to run a sub five minute mile. By the time he died of prostate cancer at seventy-four, he had published eight books on running and life while completing the Boston Marathon 21 consecutive times.
By the time most of us have gotten into our 30’s and 40’s, a certain order has started to take place. Many have begun to think of, or even plan for, retirement. Our insurance costs rise as our families and assets grow. Our schedules start to fill up with meetings and practices. Our homes often grow from the inside, and become meccas for entertainment, décor, and practicalities. We suddenly find that we need more space because our family grows in size or the stuff we acquire grows in mass. We look for ways to increase convenience and amusement in the midst of our busy lives. We often purge those practices that don’t seem necessary to get through the day. We tend to avoid areas that unnecessarily challenge us to think differently, remain flexible, and push the envelope. For us men especially, pride seems to emerge from our “man caves”, entertainment rooms, zero degree-turn riding mowers, and barbecue shrines. A time-honored tradition begins to take hold. Like George Sheehan, we start settling in for the long haul.
Much of this is the American dream, right? We have gotten through school, worked hard to get a job, and are forging ahead at work. We deserve the right to relax when the time presents itself. We have passed all the tests we need to get us to this point. Now, much of what we have come to know is that we need to start protecting what we have and enjoying where we are. We become complacent. Makes sense.
But a couple of things challenge this complacency. For many, one is children. If there was ever a time in your life that you needed to think critically, be creative, practice flexibility, learn new skills, remain in great shape, and have the ability to take on challenges, it is when those kids arrive. Personally, I have never known a period in my life that demanded it more. My children seem unaware that I have already passed all the exams. Settling in is not on their radar. They scream otherwise. They demand that I think “on my toes”, figure out the answers, endure long nights, and strive to find new ways to survive and recognize the beautiful sights they bring.
But when parents relegate their role to that of a full-time spectator, and take on the noble cause of maternal (and paternal) martyrdom, a critical balance often shifts. Spectating is a necessary and joyful part of being a parent; but being a full-time spectator, without personal pursuits and close attention to our lifestyle choices, often leads to declining health and increased negative mood. This in turn can make each day a greater struggle to renew and revitalize ourselves for the next, and for our kids. For mothers especially, this slide backwards often leads to depression, which remains one of the most robust threats to their children’s well-being.
But whether or not we have children, it is easy to find us in another spectator role. This is the role in which we watch our life passively go by, and increasingly find ourselves in pathways and states of being that we never intended. According to Erik Erikson and others, the psychosocial conflict from age 40 to 65 is generativity versus stagnation. It is the period in which adults often seek out meaning and purpose through raising their children and/or creating positive change at work. Failure to do this often leads to feelings of stagnation, depression, and despair.
When complacency and stagnation set in, our human nature, especially of today, seeks immediate promises of relief. And marketers know this. This is where psychotropic drugs, among other artificial endeavors, enter the equation. Recent statistics (e.g., NCHS Data Brief, 76, October 2011) indicate that in the United States, use of antidepressants has increased almost 400% among all ages from 1988. Individuals from 40 to 59 are the largest consumer of antidepressant medications. Twenty-three percent of women in this age group take antidepressants, making them the largest user of any age-sex combo. Females in general are 2.5 times more likely to take antidepressants than men, although statistics suggest that men disproportionally self-medicate in other ways, such as with alcohol (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Women and Alcohol. February 2011). Less than one-third of people taking anti-depressants have seen a mental health professional in the past year. But this search for immediate relief extends beyond antidepressants. Last year, Abilify, an antipsychotic, stunningly became the number one seller (in total sales) for all pharmaceuticals, grossing nearly 6.5 billion dollars. Not just psychiatric drugs, all drugs. As it continues to be marketed for wider, adjunctive purposes, including anxiety and depression, it becomes just one more “answer” to the blues that middle aged Americans are increasingly reporting.
So, where does this leave us? Well, in some ways, it leaves us with a great opportunity if we choose to look at it in this way, although right now it seems rather depressing. We can certainly hang on, if we want. Or, we can begin to challenge the prevailing conventions. We can reassess what is most important to our vitality and what is most central to our contentment.
For starters, it seems that we can’t stop thinking and learning no matter what age we are. As John Wooden once famously said, “When you are through learning, you are through.” It sounds obvious, but by thinking and learning we are talking about the process of satisfying our curiosity by seeking out new knowledge and wisdom. Of reading about things we don’t know, and asking frequent questions about things that don’t make sense. Of seeking out new ideas, and understanding why we believe what we do and why we do what we believe. Simply put, we can never stop learning. George Dawson understood this. As beautifully detailed in the book, “Life is So Good”, he described his life of illiteracy until at the youthful age of 98, when he decided it was time to learn how to read. Reading for a release is great, but reading for curiosity can take you back to those days when everything was still new.
Our fitness can’t be something we finagle into our busy schedules. It can’t be an afterthought. Not only because kids require the greatest amount of endurance we will ever know, but so that the life we have is one that we choose. We are coached to plan for retirement by investing and saving money. But, how many of us have sat down with our financial planner, only to find out that the cheapest insurance goes to those who are healthiest? The single best predictor of our ability to think after fifty, and therefore have an opportunity to truly enjoy our golden years, is one thing: our physical health. No insurance policy in the world can guarantee this. Only we can try. And it doesn’t start magically the day retirement begins.
Which brings us back full circle, to another problem. It all makes sense, except for one thing: WHERE DO WE FIND THE TIME? The answer seems to lie in the very routines that we have adopted which many would say “get them through the day” (but may in fact do little more, or even the opposite). Let’s start with TV. The average adult American watches five hours of television a day. Although certain programs may be considered educational or thought-provoking, even these remarkably edited shows really require little more than finding the right channel (By the way, a check of the Nielsen ratings tells the true story).
This is just for starters. So, what if we do have more time than we think? And if TV is just helping us to survive, then maybe most of the time is better spent with something that will help us thrive. In 1966, Winston Churchill published a book entitled, “Painting as a Pastime”. It was a collection of paintings and writings from much of his life, which had certainly been one of great challenge and strife as the Prime Minister of England during and after World War II. It demanded constant vigilance, thought, energy, and flexibility. In the midst of it all, he resorted to painting as a way to rejuvenate his spirit and his mind. He once said, “Change is the master key…the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, but not merely by rest, but by using other parts. It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated.”
There is great news about all of this. Our minds and our bodies are fully equipped to embrace this philosophy. Recent analysis of runners in the Boston Marathon found that the average runner in their mid 50’s was just as fast as those who were 18. By the way, George Sheehan set his personal best in the Boston Marathon of 3:01 at the spry age of 60. And while many of our cognitive abilities start to decline in our 30’s, our vocabulary skills continue to climb almost into retirement age.
In the United States, the average life expectancy for females is nearly 82 years of age. The average male lives to about 77. Seems kind of early to start settling in.
Just Thinking . . .
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.