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One recipe for happy old age: first make some happy memories

Posted Aug 27 2009 11:34pm

During a recent conversation with a close friend, he was remembering his two years of travelling during the early eighties as a twenty year-old. He had saved up just enough money to buy his flights and without maps or other assistance, at a time when few people did such things, off he went, relying on serendipity, wit and youth to get him through.

When he returned, grubby, tired and flat broke, he found that most of his friends had good jobs and money in the bank. They were, in short, pretty settled. It made him feel inadequate and he wondered if on some level he had failed. 

What he didn't realise at the time was that his extraordinary adventures driving all over Australia, working as he went to fund the next part of the trip; and milking cows and picking oranges on a kibbutz in Israel were rich and highly fulfilling experiences that contribute to a large part of who he is today.

And that's not all. Thirty years on, he also has deep and satisfying memories of these years, of the people he met, the places he saw and the scrapes he got into, which provide pleasure in the remembering.

His friends back home who had got on with the business of settling down into adult life will have memories of their own of course, after all, not everyone wants to travel. As Steve Martin once quipped, "I don't need to go anywhere – I can travel in my mind".

However, few will have memories as colourful or crazy as his. My friend started his working life with no money, but he did have a rich depository of life experience that has informed it ever since. His stories help define him as a person and are a significant part of his identity. 

Whenever older people recount their stories, they see images (like HDTV) in sharper and brighter definition and even better, in the telling of them they feel a greater sense of self-worth. This is the extraordinary power of reminiscence.

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