You’re only as old as you feel—about how well-off you are compared with your neighbors, that is. So find researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh.
Startling finding: Feeling that you’re not keeping up with the Joneses can make you feel older—and worse about getting older—even if, in reality, you are just as financially secure!
Why this research matters: Attitudes toward aging—specifically, how old you feel, as well as how you feel about getting older—affect your health, even how long you’ll live. If, for example, you feel good about hitting those 50-plus or 60-plus birthdays, you’re more likely to take better care of yourself—by, say, eating a good diet, exercising and being proactive about your health care. The converse is also true. Negative attitudes toward aging are linked to mental and physical health problems, increased vulnerability to stress and even higher rates of premature mortality.
But until now, little was known about how attitudes toward our economic status affect health. To tease it out, psychologists at NCSU surveyed 296 men and women, ages 60 and over, asking objective questions about their socioeconomic status (for instance, the highest grade of school or year of college achieved and their current income) as well as subjective ones—how they felt about and experienced getting older and how they thought their socioeconomic status compared with that of others in their communities. Asking subjective questions provided a more nuanced view of socioeconomic status. How well someone is keeping up with the Joneses is based on context, after all. The same income and education that’s considered high-status in one area may be low-status in another.
Perception Is Stronger Than Reality
Interestingly, respondents’ actual socioeconomic status—their income and education—had no statistical effect on how old they felt or how they felt about aging. But something related to that did have an effect, and a big one: their perceptions of their social and economic standing. The relationship was linear, which means that the higher their self-perceived status, the younger the participants felt and the more positive was their attitude about aging. The less successful and affluent they felt in relation to their peers, the older they felt and the worse they felt about aging.
What’s the connection? The study authors point to research that believing you are better off than those around you confirms your sense that you are still at the top of your game, which may equate with feeling positive about getting older. And simply perceiving that you are doing pretty well economically may mean that you’re more willing to spend the money on exercise, grooming/beauty and health resources that allow you to stay healthier and look and feel more youthful. Conversely, seeing yourself on a lower rung of the ladder could be a reflection of a more stressful life—long-term stress, especially financial stress, has been linked to feeling older and to premature aging.
How to Find Balance
Attitudes matter. The new research makes it abundantly clear that how you feel about your economic status is more important to your health and longevity than your actual status.
How to break the cycle of negatively comparing your economic well-being with that of people around you? You might start with the advice of Bottom Line’s “Soul Perspective” blogger Rabbi Daniel Cohen and practice gratitude. Doing so changes the focus from comparing yourself negatively to others to experiencing the good things you have. Cultivating gratitude has a slew of proven benefits, including boosting happiness, psychological well-being and positive emotions and increasing self-esteem—all things that promote better health and could help improve your feelings about your age, no matter how many candles are on your next birthday cake.
One technique to try: Start a journal and write down things that happen during the day for which you are grateful. They don’t need to be big things…or expensive.