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Carl Honoré: 'Mortality gives ageing a bad name'

Carl Honoré.

Now that we are living longer lives, it's time to take on the "toxic myth" that younger is always better, says Canadian writer Carl Honoré.

While it's true that with age many things are lost, many things stay the same and plenty of things improve, he tells Radio NZ's Lynn Freeman.

Honoré lays out his mission to combat the 'chamber of horrors' stereotypes about getting older in his new book Bolder.

There is no shortage of reasons that we fear ageing, says the author of the 2004 best-seller In Praise of Slow.

Number one: "Mortality gives aging a bad name."

"Every creaky joint, every grey hair, every wrinkle is a reminder that the Grim Reaper is waiting for us at the end."

But how we feel about growing older is shaped by culture – and when the message constantly coming at us is 'younger is better' that's a lot of fuel for fear.

If we accept 'younger is better' we accept the inverse of that, Honoré says.

"I think we've just swallowed this idea that past a certain birthday… it's a downhill spiral [towards] everything that nobody wants to contemplate."

The language we use is critical in a battle against ageism as it shapes our view of ourselves and the world, Honoré says.

The "most extraordinary ageism" – such as calling an absentminded moment a "senior moment" – trips lightly off many a tongue.

Every time you lightly say 'I'm showing my age' after making a cultural reference, you're reinforcing the view that advanced age is a shameful thing, he says.

And although we often hear that it wasn't always thus, the 'history of ageing' has been somewhat mythologised and it's untrue that every culture of the past venerated the elderly, he says.

That veneration tended to be just for elite elderly men – not women or lower-status men.

But even if previous generations didn't look forward to ageing, they had a more realistic view of the process, he says.

"The big difference between the modern world and what came before is we have placed youth on a plinth we have made young an end in itself… and that has warped our view and meant that we are doing ageing all wrong."

Photo: Gilles ARROYO

Honoré began his research expecting to find a geographical divide between attitudes in the west and the east where it appears from the outside that being elderly doesn't carry as much stigma and even commands respect.

But on his travels, Honoré found this wasn't the case and hadn't been for a while.

Although Asian countries pay more 'official' respect to elders in the form of national holidays and festivities, many people there have the same horror of ageing themselves, he says.

Korea is a country that has swallowed whole the 'cult of youth' – evident in the teen music phenomenon K-pop and their status as one of the most cosmetically modified countries in the world.

As with anything, staying positive is helpful and the work starts in the mirror, Honoré says.

"If you have a toxic downbeat view of ageing then you are very much more likely to age poorly."

According to Carl Honoré, ageing isn't the "chamber of horrors" we're led to believe, because as we get older:

  • Our social and emotional intelligence is improved.
  • We are more comfortable in our own skin.
  • We often feel more contented.
  • We are better at focusing on the things that are important to us.
  • We are better at being in the moment.
  • We worry less about what other people think of us.
  • We are more, generally, happier.

"The age group that reports the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction are not the 20-somethings, it's the over-60s.

"There's a kind of freedom that can come upon us in later life … if we go in with our hearts and our eyes open."

This article was first published on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon programme.