Author: Attorney Julie Hines
It’s common knowledge, even a cliché, to say that staying active is an important part of aging well. We understand that at every point in life, but especially in our later years, it’s healthy to have responsibilities and relationships that keep us going. But self-direction and autonomy may play an even greater role in long-term health and well-being than most people realize.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has been studying human health and behavior for over 40 years. A prolific researcher with more than 200 published studies to her name, Langer has conducted a number of experiments on factors related to aging. Her findings suggest that treating yourself as healthy and capable, and assuming responsibilities accordingly, counts a great deal toward actually being those things.
In 1976, Langer published a landmark study whose implications still haven’t quite sunk into the public consciousness. She and her team identified two comparable groups of residents in a Connecticut nursing home. Both groups were offered small houseplants as gifts. One group was invited to care for the houseplants themselves, and also encouraged to take advantage of resources, programs, and other opportunities available to them in the nursing home. The other group was told that the staff would take care of their plants for them, and was not invited to seek out opportunities in the nursing home. The idea was to give the first group more responsibilities and control over their environment than the second, and then to examine whether these conditions had any impact on the residents’ health.
The outcomes were striking. According to both self-evaluations and assessments by nursing home staff, the “responsibility-induced” residents felt happier, more active, and more in control of their lives than the comparison group. Three weeks after the start of the experiment, 71% of the non-decision-making group had become more debilitated and infirm—they had aged in the way we traditionally understand aging, namely, as a synonym for ailing and losing control. But in an illuminating contrast, 93% of the decision-making group had either remained in the same condition or actually become healthier. This group had aged, too, of course, but they hadn’t experienced a decline in their quality of life. It seems caring for their plants and taking part in community activities may have made the difference.
What is clear from the houseplant experiment, then, is that having the responsibility and independence to make decisions can significantly improve overall health and well-being. Aging may be inevitable, but trusting oneself to engage in positive activities can make the process smoother and more dignified.