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Will I still love me when I’m 64?

  • We enjoy noticing changes in our imagination of being old when we meet robust, busy and hyper-social older people
  • Longevity has some side benefits we may not have accounted for

Rishi Kapoor (left) as Amitabh Bachchan’s son in ‘102 Not Out’.
Rishi Kapoor (left) as Amitabh Bachchan’s son in ‘102 Not Out’.

My father likes to tell this story about visiting a friend’s aunt. At some point during the visit, the gregarious aunt called out to her daughter to come and meet the guest. The daughter called out that she was coming and then slowly walked in, leaning on a cane. At the time, the daughter was in her late 60s and the mother in her late 80s. My father, a dedicated visitor of the elderly, found this both a hilarious and an important picture of the future of ageing. He had thought frequently about growing old but never about being the elderly child.

Ageing, I can’t resist saying, ain’t what it used to be. We enjoy noticing changes in our imagination of being old when we meet robust, busy and hyper-social older people. Some of them are starting new careers, flying off on holidays, forming new friend circles, and all this gives us good cheer. How nice, we think to ourselves. But we are not thinking as much about the process of becoming the 70-year-old swimmer or the 80-year-old artist or the 65-year-old happy bridegroom. We sometimes think about our future selves in a way that our present selves don’t support.

Philosopher Derek Parfit argued that we all experience a distance between our present and future selves. Parfit invokes Proust who wrote, “we are incapable, while we are in love, of acting as fit predecessors of the person whom we shall presently have become and who will be in love no longer". It is almost as if our future self is a different person.

And this has consequences. If we think of the future self as another person very different from our current selves, we are less likely to do anything that will benefit that future self—save money or exercise, for instance. If we think of the future self as radically different from our current self, we are more likely to favour our current self and eat a third kachori.

Psychologist Daniel Goldberg has been interested in ways to activate our imagination of ageing. During a TED talk in 2014, he said, “Most of us can remember who we were 10 years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we are going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen. Sorry, when people say ‘I can’t imagine that’, they are usually talking about their own lack of imagination, and not about the unlikelihood of the event that they are describing."

“When I am 45, I will be heavily into Crossfit and never be cross, even though today I am very ragey and only inclined to the occasional gentle walk to the front door," we fantasize at 35. Most of us have positive imaginations of our distant, future selves. This kind of optimism should be a good thing, right? Wrong. A handful of us have vivid, dark predictions of our future selves. Based on what we have learnt, we would think that those who imagine their future selves as worse off and worry about it will be better off, right? Also wrong. A 10-year longitudinal study, published in April in the journal Social Psychological And Personality Science, shows that people who imagine their future selves as most similar to their present selves in important personality traits are most likely to be happy later in life.

As longevity increases, the gap between our present selves and future selves becomes larger. If, as the philosophers say, we neglect our future selves because of some failure of belief or imagination, imagine how much harder it becomes not just to imagine retirement but living two decades worth of life after retirement.

Recently, most of us have encountered or frantically avoided FaceApp, the viral photo app. The app had celebrities and millions of regular folks trying out their old-age filter to see what they might look like when substantially older. But a few years before such an app was conceived, Goldberg was advocating similar technology that would make us think seriously about life as an older person. He believes that those who interact with their “aged" selves are more likely to save towards retirement. Studies show that teenagers who write letters to their future selves are less likely to trip into unpleasant, self-destructive decisions. I don’t know about you but I saw app-aged photographs of my brother and cousin and promptly put my phone away, unable to deal with so much reality.

But apps may not be the only way to accept the existence of a future self strongly connected to our present self, a future self that needs to be served.

Longevity has some side benefits we may not have accounted for. A friend says her father called her recently to report on his visit to the eye doctor and ended the call by suggesting she go and get tested for glaucoma too. Nothing brought home the fact that she had turned 40 like that phone call. It should have been depressing but it was, instead, oddly comforting.

While it is hard to take advice from adults when we are growing up, it might be okay to take advice from adults about growing old.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

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