At some point, though, most of us stop looking forward and start looking back. We stop thinking that the best is yet to come.
For me, that point came in my 30s. That’s when I started thinking of aging as a process of inevitable decay. I saw signs of it in myself, and if you asked me then what I’d feel like at 50, I’d have likely said “depressed.”
Well, I’ll turn 50 this week and I’m not depressed about it. Instead, I’m genuinely happy.
The basic elements of a good, long life
In my 40s, I started learning that the secrets to a good, long life weren’t so secret. While the science isn’t perfect, there’s broad agreement on the basics: good food, regular exercise, strong social connections, a sense of purpose. Persistence and conscientiousness help, too.
These things don’t guarantee a long, healthy life, but they do increase the odds quite a bit. And you can readily learn about them by reading up on The Longevity Project, for example, or by watching this TED talk on “How to live to be 100.”
Certain cultures seems to live this way naturally. The people in Okinawa, Japan for example, have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world partly because they have a very different diet and way of living than, say, people in New York City. They’re also aware of the importance of having "ikigai”, meaning "the reason you wake up in the morning."
Their outlook on life and aging, one I increasingly admire, is reflected in this Okinawan saying:
"At 70 you are still a child, at 80 a young man or woman. And if at 90 someone from Heaven invites you over, tell him: 'Just go away, and come back when I am 100.'”
Changing habits, changing perspective
When are the best years of your life? I’ve realized that the answer to that question depends more on your habits and your perspective than on how long you’ve been on the planet.
As I learned more about better ways of living, I gradually changed my life. I exchanged junk food for whole foods (and ultimately a vegetarian diet). I stopped commuting and started exercising regularly. I unplugged cable TV and started spending more time learning new things. And, thanks to the work I do, I developed a bigger social network and found my “ikigai.”
Of course, these habits may not be right for you. But my hope is that, no matter how old you are, you make choices that give you a healthy perspective. And you develop habits that help you live with both an appreciation of the present and a sense of excitement about the possibilities.