The Best of What's To Come

Age, Aging, and the Riddle of What Comes Next

By David S. Alter, PhD, ABPP, ABPH

Does “age,” a small, three-letter word, still evoke positive associations for you? 

There was a time when, if asked how old you were, you might answer proudly, and even add a fraction to show you were closing in on the next higher number. “I’m six and a half,” you’d say. No longer.  As we get older, the unavoidable march of time conjures, for many of us, images of decline, loss, and our inevitable end. 

Our culture does little to challenge this view: time is a commodity to be used for productivity, efficiency, and achievement. When we spend our time elsewhere, we minimize those activities as frivolous, a waste, and—worst of all in our capital-infused consciousness—as having squandered the opportunity to earn or produce even more. Time, after all, is money!

Meaning Matters

As retirement looms, many retirees begin to question, for the first time, what we’ve been taught supposedly matters most. For those with uncertain expectations, it can be challenging to create a sense of value, purpose, and enjoyment outside of their decades of work. Victor Frankl, the great 20th century psychiatrist, humanist, and philosopher, eloquently argued for the value of meaning over mere motion as the central motivating force throughout our life span. 

While exhausting, being an attorney can be meaningful. Many attorneys don’t realize how much structure and purpose the practice of law gives them until they find themselves unsettled and challenged in retirement. While staying busy isn’t a difficult goal to achieve in retirement, there is a difference between a full schedule and the feeling that what one does still matters. Moreover, the narrow goal of staying busy seems to counteract what retirement is supposed to afford you: leisure time, the opportunity to reflect, to contemplate, to dabble, or to unapologetically do nothing. After all, haven’t each of us earned the right to retire, and for that fact to be its own reward?

Research into the links between retirement age, health, and life expectancy are still emerging. A fairly consistent finding is that delaying retirement beyond age 65 is associated with consistent drops in mortality. In other words, those who retire earlier tend, on average, to die sooner. However, several confounding factors affect these results. People may retire due to health challenges, so their reduced life expectancy may be a result of pre-existing illness. But working is known to keep the mind engaged and is associated with higher levels of physical activity. A brain and mind that is continually challenged and a body that remains in motion are associated with a greater health span (the years we enjoy vigorous and lasting health beyond merely remaining alive).

The conclusions drawn from this research reinforce that brains and bodies are designed to remain active. The reality is, there’s some truth to the phrase “use it or lose it.” Atrophy is the inevitable consequence of neglect. Research shows us that remaining mentally engaged and physically active promotes longer lasting health and delays in mortality. 

Leisure Time is not Frivolous Time

Attaining satisfaction after a career in law is more than a matter of creating a daily routine to remain physically and mentally active.  The world of “play” offers us an alternative: Joseph Pieper (1904-1997), the German philosopher, reminded us that as far back as the ancient Greeks, leisure was an ingredient in the lives of scholars and academics. Blocks of time devoted to unstructured leisure activities were seen as essential for learning and mastery. 

Modern neuroscience confirmed these classical beliefs: leisure and play engage different neural circuits than those activated in the daily practice of law. Leisure and play are composed of actions where enjoyment is a central goal, and where persistence in the play lasts only as long as the fun lasts. Moreover, play involves adaptive mental flexibility, as roles and rules continuously change to enhance pleasure. This is a huge difference from daily adherence to the rule-bound, logical, and evidence-based cognitive domain of the law. 

When 1 + 1 is More Than Two

Regarding cognitive domains, two stand out and are ensconced within the two primary hemispheres of the human brain. Success in the field of law relies heavily on those brain-based skills located within the many infoldings of the left brain. The left brain’s circuitry is designed to enable narrow and focused attention, which is useful for grasping facts, perceiving categories, and manipulating those details, facts, and categories as arguments. that are formulated, and how legal strategies are constructed. Legal strategies are primarily constructed in the left brain.

This type of information is accumulated through lived experience. The brain gathers and consolidates this information into a vast reservoir of what is known to us. We all draw from this repository of knowledge when we determine what to expect next. Those predictions work well, so long as the world we face remains generally similar to what our experience has taught us to expect. 

Therein lies the challenge when facing the transition(s) to retirement. This phase of life is so unlike the one that came before it. Your daily routines can feel unrecognizable. If determining the path forward depended entirely on the application of left hemisphere processing, we would likely encounter the proverbial definition of insanity: we would be attempting the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. 

Thankfully, we are endowed with a well-functioning right hemisphere that is ready and waiting to be deployed to create fulfilling years of well-earned retirement. The primary functions of the right hemisphere differ markedly from those of the left: rather than a detailed grasping of a single fact or object, the right is oriented to the connections and associations between different objects, facts, and patterns. The right brain is oriented toward broad attentional focus, the better to perceive “the big picture.” This part of the brain is sensitive to the emotional and relational dimensions of daily existence and shows a clear preference for what can be experienced directly as opposed to what can be conceptualized or objectively analyzed through a detached, impartial observing stance. 

The important point to capture is not that one hemisphere is better or superior to the other, but that together they enable different modes of lived and yet to be lived experience to be more deeply enjoyed. 


Brain-based Triplets for Healthy Aging

Looking ahead to retirement, we might describe two neuroscience-based pillars that support a rewarding, pleasurable, and meaningful future. The left-hemisphere pillar is composed of a triplet of identifying, predicting, and controlling. What we learn enables us to predict the future, which gives us a sense (however delusional!) that we can control future events. We “know” what to expect. You have likely relied on this triplet for decades in your practice. Your legal success has rested on the strength of this cognitive pillar. 

As you transition to retirement, however, a right hemisphere-based triplet can be useful. This triplet involves the value of uncertainty, curiosity, and discovery. Learning to embrace uncertainty about the future fosters curiosity. An “I wonder…” perspective emerge. Curiosity is linked to drive states and behavioral motivation.  We explore what we may wonder about precisely because we don’t “know,” and find that mystery and uncertainty worth exploring. The likely outcome of creative and curious inquiry will be a novel discovery.

Novelty is central to expanding our field of knowledge. More fundamentally, however, uncertainty, curiosity, and discovery feed our hunger to transcend what we’ve known while orienting ourselves to what we don’t yet know. This is a future-oriented outlook, which is enormously helpful as we face the possibility-filled nature of our post-retirement life. 


The Pleasure of an Uncertain Life

What could a month of living for the pleasures of uncertainty look like? We might peruse a community calendar of events looking specifically at activities with which we are unfamiliar. We might join a group (a cooking class, a book group, an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) course at the University of Minnesota) purely out of curiosity. We might set aside one night, twice per month, for you and your spouse/partner, or a friend, as a mystery night. Each mystery night, one party is tasked with identifying something that neither is experienced or familiar with and attend it simply for the discovery of how the experience sits with you (i.e., a new cuisine, a community theater production, a karaoke night at a local hotspot). A thumbs down is just as important a discovery as a thumbs up because novelty of experience supersedes the certainty of knowing beforehand. 

You may also decide that now is the time to “give back” in a new way, which may entail identifying where to volunteer a few hours (or more) each month. As Matthieu Ricard has so eloquently written, volunteerism, as a form of altruism, has powerful positive biological effects on the individual, their social connections, and their larger community. Volunteerism entails an investment in the future and, hence, helps transform your worries about what may lie ahead. You may develop a sense of comfort and confidence that the compounding benefits of your gift of time will continue to blossom and reap dividends for years to come. How can retirement not become infused with exciting possibilities when these investments and explorations involving uncertainty, curiosity, and discovery become part of your living lexicon going forward?

David Alter, PhD earned his doctorate from the Rosalind Franklin School of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois. He maintains a full-time private practice at Partners in Healing, the practice he founded in 1999. Dr. Alter is a published author of a book on healthy aging has had multiple articles and book chapters published in peer reviewed journals and other publications. He enjoys teaching and training of other professionals when not engaged in his clinical practice work.