Organised religion often gets a bad press. It is held responsible for corruption, intolerance, fanaticism, exploitation, declarations of holy war and rigid thinking. Ironically, peaceful existence of large numbers of people was first made possible by organised religion. It created society, solidarity, a sense of belonging and made agriculture, education and literacy possible. It inspired our laws and as a patron of the arts, creativity. People sometimes prefer to refer to themselves as spiritual rather than religious, but attending a religious service has surprising benefits, whether we are religious or not.
The main benefit is the sense of acceptance and identity. There is plenty of evidence that social contact and the feeling of belonging prolongs life. Rituals known and loved by a large group of people may not be seen as “useful” by non-religious folk, but what they do is enable synchronisation. This form of group cohesion is achieved by brains locking in to a common theme. When a song becomes a hit, millions of brains around the world synchronise. The internet has provided a new way for people to align without even being on the same continent, but actual physical presence increases this further. Emotion, movement, chanting and the recognition of patterns and rhythms have a powerful effect on the body and mind.
Recently ‘mirror neurons’ have been discovered in the brain. These are cells that respond to the actions of others as if one were carrying out the action oneself, thus provoking empathy. If music is involved in a religious service, the effect is enhanced. Singing together synchronises our heartbeats. Swedish research has found that joining a choir not only increases oxygen in the blood but triggers the release of oxytocin which lowers stress levels and blood pressure. Making spine-shivering harmonies with others seems to cause a cascade of deep, healing emotion in the singers and their audience. 60% of people with mental health issues see a distinct improvement a year after joining choirs, and many no longer meet the criteria for clinical depression; symptoms of other diseases (Parkinson’s, lung disease) also improve as well as posture, confidence and breathing. There is something unique and powerful about producing music with others.
“I don’t know what it is about sitting listening to a sermon,” said Agnes a 42 year old parishioner in South Wales, “But irrespective of the content, it makes me feel good. Many of the congregation are strangers to me, but we are all one community, and I like that.”
In the Christian religion, when the priest holds up his hand to bless the congregation, The Peace of the Lord be with you always, this promotes a sense of bonding, and triggers the all-important relaxation response. This is true of all organised religion.
Ritual is an extremely powerful force. The appeal of organised religion is not just intellectual and emotional, as those outside it may believe, it is physical. It taps into the sense that those who have been to the edge of death and back often speak of: the sense of the connection of all things, the universality of human consciousness. Such people often report feeling they were connected to all people everywhere, and all living things in nature, strongly contradicting the sense of separation and individuality many of us feel most of the time.
Though we are many, we are one body……
After the retirement party, the applause and the handshakes, Jenny was left with the ticking clock at 10 am on weekday mornings and an unexpected feeling of envy at the world rushing around to get to work.
Jenny felt she had joined an amorphous mass of pensioners, sidelined by the rest of the world and condemned to be deprived of any recognition for everything she had achieved. She was suffering from one of the side-effects of retirement : loss of validation.
Validation from others feels good. It starts with the need for our parents’ reassurance and approval. Throughout life we identify ourselves as, for example, parents and/or with our professions, so that when retirement arrives and we have none of these roles, it is hardly surprising many of us are left with a feeling we are nobody at all. “The day after I retired my access card to the building expired,” said Ronald who had got to the top of an international institution. “Security wouldn’t let me in to collect some things. I’d crossed that threshold for 35 years and suddenly I was a persona non grata.”
Recognition works in two ways – people at work recognising who you are (your name and your personality) and the acknowledgment we receive from the contribution we make to a company, institution or service. Virtually everyone dreams of being applauded, and finding oneself in a new role where applause is highly unlikely is tough. Work provides structure, identity and a feeling of camaraderie, an “us-against-the-world” culture. With this gone, we are left with the feeling of having fallen off a tower that took many years to climb and from where we used to be able to see the way ahead.
“We had a seminar for those about to retire in our company, a big multinational,” said Arnold, “and on the first day this woman comes in and says we shouldn’t worry because they had a long list of reputable retirement homes the company recommended. On the second day I grudgingly admitted I had gone home the previous night feeling a bit depressed. I soon found out everyone had felt the same.”
Retirement is the great leveller, since there is nothing to distinguish us from those who have done jobs with less status (in our opinion) than ours. We may find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people who we secretly sneered at before and would never have dreamed of associating with. It is worse when we find they are mightily unimpressed with our past careers, and may even never have heard of the job we used to do. Younger people still working no longer have to show deference either, and we have no claim on their admiration. Retirement may be the first time in our lives when no one recognises our achievements, and no one cares if we learn a new skill. “I thought of learning Italian,” said Samantha, a former banker, “but then thought, well what’s the point? I’m not going to need to put it on my CV”.
Older people droning on about their past glories may have irritated us in the past, and now we realise what they were about. The ego needs to prove we still are somebody. This is why it is so dangerous to hook our self-esteem exclusively to our job and yet most men and an increasing number of women do just this. It is important to separate who we are from what we do early on, to develop an inner life and natural confidence and to value ourselves more for the way we live our lives than for what we do at work. Work is at its most basic simply a means of earning a living. Would we have worked all those hours, and all those years for free?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation. Retirement is a moment when many of these needs are suddenly – often very suddenly – undermined and threatened. But if we examine the top of the pyramid, it is obvious that retirement offers the greatest opportunity for self-actualisation.
The people who we feel no longer recognise us after retirement will one day face the same issues. Retirement is the time when we really can offer our skills and wisdom for free. It is a wonderful time for self-exploration. More than anything, it is the time to recognise ourselves at last.
There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.
What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.
Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.
Mindfulness is rapidly being adopted by the medical community as an effective way of combatting stress. It involves noticing what is going on – in the external world, and inside us, in our bodies and in the world of emotions. Mindfulness can be practised through meditation or by moving through tasks in a self-aware manner. In this way we live life fully, rather than constantly projecting into the past or the future. This is the meaning of living a true present. But what happens when the present moment is truly awful?
Nina, a primary school teacher in her forties from Aberdeen, found herself in just such a moment when during an argument on holiday her partner became physically and verbally aggressive. He bundled her into a car and, shouting insults at her, drove onto the motorway. He said he would be dumping her in a rest area and would choose one with no shops or phone. She did not know where he was taking her. She asked him not to be cruel, and he shouted that if she opened her mouth one more time, he would leave her on the hard shoulder. She fell into silence, while the car was being driven at top speed. This terrifying journey continued for seven hours.
Nina used mindfulness techniques to cope, which she had practised all her life. First of all she sank into her emotions. “I am afraid. My neck and back are tense. I am cold. My legs and arms are rigid. I am terrified he will drive off leaving me with no money and no coat. It is raining and windy outside. I am afraid I will have to ask strangers for help and I will feel shame. I am enraged at the mistreatment I am enduring. I am angry with myself I chose a man capable of treating me with contempt. I am wondering how far he will go, is my life in danger? Will his rage make us crash? I am confused at how he could be so loving before. These are my emotions.”
Then, she focused on a raindrop on the window. She glanced at his body, fixed, hands gripping the steering wheel, and noticed the power he was enjoying over her. She realised this power could not last forever.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for stating that change was central to the universe: “Everything is flux”. This moment, although it seems endless, is also in flux, she told herself.
The circumstances were external. The emotions temporary. Nina knew she was an immortal being, and that the moment could not touch her soul. Eckhart Tolle in his famous book, The Power of Now says of such moments: accept then act. Nina accepted her circumstances, then took action. There was no physical action she could take, but there was plenty that she could do in the privacy of her mind. He has taken my body captive, she thought, he is trying to frighten me. But my mind is still free.
In such moments we need to become alchemists, transforming the base metal of dark moments into the gold of the soul, into conscious awareness and detachment. When she realised she was indestructible, the resistance to the moment relented.
Having located the trauma in her emotions, she set about allowing it to dissolve, imagining the tension crackling and dispersing. The earth was still holding her, the air still nourishing her body. Much of her suffering was due to what she imagined others would think of her circumstances, the outrage other women would express at being called a whore and disgusting by her partner, the ‘received opinion’ of what constituted abuse in a relationship. This caused her shame. Accepting what is without judgment is central to sensing the true present when the moment seems unacceptable. I will make this moment my ally, she said to herself, and allowed a private smile to form behind her lips. He is gripped by rage and feelings of revenge, but I am just sitting in this moment, and watching.
Nina then acted by choosing not to suffer. For seven hours she focused on joy, filling her mind with the good things in her life. Periodically the fear returned. She observed it, dived into it, and emerged once again.
Marianne Williamson talks of the law of divine compensation. She says even when we experience diminishment there is more than enough for the universe to compensate for any lack. In a car if you take the wrong turn, the GPS automatically corrects the course. Even if there is material ‘lack’ in this moment, there are ways through our energy, attitudes, perspective and behaviour to invoke peace, a peace that cannot disappear. If you stop giving a problem energy, the moment is transformed. Nina clung to this concept as the hours ticked by. She found her sense of time dissolving.
Then she recognised the signs of their home town Aberdeen. They hit heavy traffic. She felt his power waning. She noticed his body language changing. He was screaming at the traffic, blaming her for the congestion, for the situation she had got them both into, in his words. He began to berate her for not speaking to him to try and ‘make things all right’. ‘You told me not to speak,’ she said. He denied this.
And then he stopped the car near her flat and she got out. He got out too and stood her opposite her, his face conciliatory. “Make me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,” he said, sighing.
“No,” she said, and walked out of his life.
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Falling in love can mess with our minds and bodies. It is not an exaggeration to say love is a form of madness, since when we fall in love we frequently exhibit symptoms that mirror mental illness. This psychiatric disorder is necessary to overrule our logic and convince us to stay with someone however inappropriate (anyone?) so our species can reproduce. Love releases a chemical cocktail with the same effect as amphetamines. We feel high, our self-esteem rises and we exhibit obsessive behaviours and thought patterns. Experiments have shown that the insular cortex in the brain is activated, which is the same area linked with fear. Panic, anxiety, high alert, inability to concentrate and obsessive-compulsive behaviour (checking emails all the time, planning conversations and wild speculation) are all manifestations of the love bug.
Because it is so risky to be in love, nature only allows these wild feelings to last two years. After that appreciation, compassion and friendship take over or – just as often – boredom, exasperation and aversion. Even though the two-year tight bond is probably intended to cover the period of raising an infant, these feelings are not age-related. In Iris Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, The Sea Charles Arrowby, a rather arrogant playwright, finds himself living close to his first teenage love. Even though she is barely recognisable in old age he becomes obsessed with her and when she refuses to elope with him, kidnaps her.
In a healthy relationship however, love is a powerful anti-ageing drug.
Here are some of its benefits :
Feeling attracted to someone : Having butterflies when we are near someone we desire improves organ function. Blood flow increases, extra oxygen keeps the heart fit, the metabolism gets a good kick-start and our skin-tone improves.
Holding hands : A study by the University of California found this has an anaesthetic effect.
A hug : Lowers blood pressure, produces oxytocin (the feel-good hormone), combats stress.
During sex : Apart from the calories we burn (100-200 in a half an hour session), sex gives us a healthy glow. This is because during sex our bodies produce extra oestrogen which helps balance our hormone levels and makes the body produce extra collagen – fantastic news for our skin.
After sex : Being in love is enough to reduce stress levels and boost our immune system, but sex once a week has been linked to higher levels of immunoglobulin A (Wilkes University, Pennsylvania) which is a powerful antibody. It reduces the risk of cancer, high blood pressure, strokes and depression. After lovemaking oxytocin helps us relax and we sleep better.
The success of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring Judi Dench shows that older people recognise the experience of falling in love in later life. In fact many people argue true love is not for the young. It is fairly easy to fall in love in our twenties because that is our default setting – in love or out of it – but it is a different experience later on, since our expectations for relationships have evolved. Someone who has, in the words of novelist John Lanchester, “limitless reserves of indifference…the thrilling estuarine boredness of her ‘Yeah’ “– is less likely to be appealing at 60 years old.
Here are some of the advantages of love in later life :
1. People know more who they are and what they want. Getting married young is risky for this reason.
2. People have learnt that selflessness pays off.
3. Although physical attraction is always a factor, it is only one of them, with other factors such as emotional and financial stability high up on the list.
4. Older people are far more able to judge who will make a good partner – often based on bitter experience.
5. Maturity brings certainty about what behaviours we are prepared to accept. Increased financial independence means we can judge whether to pursue a relationship without the interference of other factors.
“I wasn’t really ready for true love until I had worked out what happened to me in my childhood and subsequent awful marriage,” said Tina, a nurse. “And that took two more failed relationships and the death of my mother.”
Love and support from another human being who has our best interests at heart can add years to our lives. Being single is not a disaster (see Does being single shorten your life?) but love and sex are part of who we are, and the benefits they bring – unlike other important factors such as exercise and healthy eating – are ‘for free’.
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Psychologically, having children can make you feel older because you are shoved off your place as a member of the youngest generation. Suddenly you are a mum or dad, and some people claim within a few months of a birth you also look like one. “You can spot them,” said Darren, a teenager. “There’s something about the women in particular that tells you they’re somebody’s mum.”
What is it then?
There is of course plenty of medical evidence that having children actually lengthens your life – particularly if you are a woman. Childlessness in women is associated with a greater risk of ovarian, endometrial and breast cancer. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are protective.
However, the strain on the body of a pregnancy, not to mention what comes afterwards, causes many people to believe the stress of children ages them by decades. Dealing with tantrums and – even worse – the disapproving grimaces of onlookers is right up there on the list of life’s most stressful moments. “I was on a plane with my two toddlers,” says Marion, “and they were misbehaving like only toddlers can when confined to a small space for several hours. There was a woman in front of me who flicked calmly through a magazine throughout the flight, but at the end she approached me by poking me in the back and shouted, ‘You’re supposed to be controlling them not the other way round!’ ”
Parents get used to carrying weights which childless people only experience at the gym, but these weights can cause damage since they often kick, scream and writhe while we carry them. Carrying a toddler on the hip puts the spine into an S-shape, leaving mothers vulnerable to scoliosis and arthritis. Lack of sleep and living constantly on adrenaline when on a busy road with young children takes its toll. Add to that the worry of school performance, the nagging to buy the latest gadget or brand name and the rebellion of teenage years and it is little wonder some biologists say having children can lead to an earlier death. Professor Thomas Kirkwood, a biological gerontologist at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, UK, has come up with the ‘disposable soma theory’. If a body invests in reproduction, resources are diverted away from repairing the continual damage caused by the ageing process. Experiments on fruit flies have demonstrated that individuals who are genetically programmed to live longer are less fertile.
After childbirth women feel frumpier for a reason. Muscles are laxer, bladder control is compromised causing temporary or sometimes permanent incontinence (on coughing or sneezing) and fat accumulated around the abdomen for breast milk production is fiendishly difficult to shift. It is difficult to feel sophisticated when your breasts are leaking all over your blouse or – later on – when you are racing back from work to pick up the kids or trying to hold down a job while cooking, shopping and helping with university applications.
However, a Danish study has recently suggested that it is the childless who are more likely to die early. “Childless couples are at increased risk of dying early of all causes,” says researcher Esben Agerbo PhD, associate professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. Both women and men benefited from having children and this study has been confirmed elsewhere. Michael Eisenberg MD, director of male reproductive medicine at Stanford University, found that childless married men had a higher risk of dying of heart disease. Among women who remain childless, the death rate from heart disease, cancer and accidents was four times as high.
The interesting thing is that adoption also has the same positive effect. Theories as to why having children lengthens life hinge on the lifestyle choices of parents. They may have less late nights (as they have to get up to serve breakfast and drive to school), choose better food options and exhibit less risky behaviour overall (no time, probably, for that kind of ‘fun’). It could also be that undesired childlessness causes a fatalistic attitude, and depression. There may be less of a will to fight to survive. Focusing on the need to stay around for the children’s sake probably has a major effect on health, say psychologists, confirming the mind-body link.
So, next time they’re driving us mad and we swear they’ll be the death of us, let us remember….the reverse could be true.
The writer Tom Robbins once said that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. It seems an odd phrase, since an unhappy or traumatic childhood always stays with us, whether consciously or otherwise. Those who are not self-aware sometimes repeat abusive behaviour with their own children, and those who are more introspective either veer to the opposite extremes (an authoritarian childhood leading to permissive parenting for example), or spend a lifetime trying to rid themselves of feelings of worthlessness.
These traumas place tremendous stress on our minds and bodies. Children exposed to marital stress have a greater risk of psychological and health problems. Those exposed to abuse or negligence from, for example, a narcissistic mother or a violent-tempered father bear the marks of these experiences in their cellular memories and, epigenetics is showing us, in their genes. The interaction between stressful social situations and the body’s stress response plays a role in the choice of later relationships and has been linked to a greater risk of early death. However, Linda Martinez-Lewi Ph.D, a clinical expert on the narcissistic personality says, “Some children of narcissistic mothers not only survive to tell the true tale of their lives but they heal and evolve and create. I have found that these adult children are among some of the most empathic human beings I have ever encountered. “
Rethinking the past is a powerful tool. This is not denial, it is taking control. It is finding the positive in what seems unredeemably negative. It is gaining mastery over bad memories and ensuring optimum planning for the future. We do not deny what happened, we use it for our own triumph. It is sneaky, cunning and brilliant and because it happens in the privacy of our own minds, it harms no one. It is nobody’s business but our own. More, it is the sign of genius.
Every time we recall an outrage done to us, let us also remember the occasional good times. It may be a moment of laughter (abusive parents are often funny and entertaining. They live on the edge and have a quirky view of the world), a time when our parent or carer achieved something that made us proud; it may be the fact we gained access to experiences (foreign trips, meeting their acquaintances) we would not normally have had in an average family. It may even just be the times we were away from them and had great fun at school, or with a romantic partner, or when we did something in secret that made us feel strong and independent, and that there was hope.
If the person who caused the pain is still around to inflict more damage, we need to establish new ground rules. The choice is : illness or change, self-protection or giving in to fear. If we can’t do it alone, cognitive behavioural therapy teaches how to manage demands and extreme reactions from close relatives. It teaches conflict management and useful strategies for reducing the likelihood of illness.
The body has an incredible capacity to repair DNA damage. Therapy and thought control change the way we think about our past, and meditation helps repair DNA. An enzyme called DNA ligase IV uses overhanging pieces of DNA adjacent to the break to join and fill in the ends. DNA repair is not a fantasy (see The Inner Cavern).
Who are we serving by going through life feeling damaged? What is the point? Maybe we didn’t get what we wanted, but no one gets everything and anyway, we chose this childhood as a challenge, as the chance to shine in our own thriller. Why not instead focus on a truth that serves us? Our set point is that of an eternal being in control of our own story.
We have nothing to lose in letting go of a past where we were the victim, except misery, being right, blaming others and feeling like a loser. We are not at the mercy of the past, we can rewrite it through a happy filter, seeing difficult moments as crucial experiences that made us what we are today. Let us be the stars in our own adventure movies. By rewriting the past we gain happiness, joy, freedom and the power to create the present. We also repair the cellular memory, wipe away the damage to our bodies and expunge the seeds of disease lying in ambush for our later years.
There is a taboo subject surrounding the death of certain people we know. It is the feeling of relief.
When acquaintances and relatives pass away who have in some way blighted our lives, either knowingly through abuse, or unconsciously through placing their own expectations upon us, can free us to explore many new possibilities. Feeling relief at the death of a parent whose disapproval or mockery we feared is an extremely common phenomenon, but to express it seems callous, and our feelings are often mixed, so we keep them to ourselves.
Sabine, a woman in her early sixties from Austria says, “My father was a tyrant. He terrorized my mother who died of a heart attack in her fifties, and beat my brothers. I was his golden girl, but he ruined my youth by spoiling our family life. We were constantly walking on eggshells. I moved to another country as soon as I was able, but his disapproval of the fact I had a child out of wedlock cast a shadow over my joy at being a mother. When he died I felt finally free.”
How can we advocate living past 100, even to 150 as Sonia Arrison suggests will soon be possible in her book 100+, when this might mean never being free of our parents, or of that ‘friend’ whom we find so difficult when she phones up, or of the boss who made us feel so small and whom we still occasionally see in town?
The question becomes even more pertinent when we examine the case of brutal dictators. However, this is not such a clear-cut problem, as Sonia Arrison argues: “In fact the longer a dictator lives the more likely it is he will create enemies and increase his vulnerability to being ousted and brought to justice.”
Indeed, this is what happened with the Nazis and what would have happened to General Pinochet. The recent Jimmy Saville case in the UK is also a good example. The victims of this pedophile never got justice since he died before his actions came to the attention of the press and the police. He could not even be stripped of his knighthood since individuals cease to hold the honour after death.
But what of the little dictators in the private sphere that blight the lives of people no one ever hears about? Those who may not commit actual crimes but whose bullying tactics for example, or emotional abuse keep their victims from happiness? We are talking of parents who continue a habit acquired in a child’s early years of using them as a scapegoat for the family’s problems – a trait common in narcissistic parents. We are talking about fathers who compete professionally with their sons, or sisters who adopt a sneering attitude to their younger siblings. We are talking also about neighbours-from-hell, CEOs with psychopathic traits and religious leaders with an iron grip on their followers. Death therefore brings freedom in dysfunctional families, and a new beginning in many social situations, so how can we square this with the drive to increase lifespan?
Life extension research more often than not focuses on genes and organ replacement, but it is our conviction that there is a spiritual dimension to living longer that is as important and probably more so. Stress avoidance and a positive attitude are part of this, but we would go further, and suggest belief that our health and vitality lies in our hands is an important factor in longevity. It depends on a mindful journey lasting a lifetime consisting in exorcising inner demons – negative emotions, trauma, life-weakening tendencies such as self-doubt, unworthiness, anxiety etc but also traits that harm others such as rage, violence, jealousy and bullying. Overcoming the mental trauma caused by these states of mind and unlearning these unhelpful thought patterns is the way to avoid the stress that causes DNA damage. A longer life offers more possibility for reconciliation and mutual understanding, but this is clearly never going to happen with some people. It is our belief the conquest of the lower self is the key to long life, and those individuals who have failed to master their minds and emotions (but who have nonetheless facilitated our spiritual growth) are unlikely to be on that path, and are therefore not candidates for unusually lengthy lives.
Bullies are necessary. They make us appreciate their opposite, they throw love, tolerance and empathy into a brighter focus; they help us develop wisdom and fortitude. However, they are unlikely to be in our lives forever.
Some studies have shown that marital happiness has no effect on the benefits of being married. This is clearly absolute nonsense. Any statistical health advantage in unhappy marriages almost certainly comes from women telling men to see a doctor when something seems wrong. But emotional stress and an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly going to impact health. Healthy relationships increase lifespan. Abusive, violent, manipulative, exploitative relationships are ruinous to health.
“I can’t understand why my father died at 72,” said Sandy. “He jogged every day, was a non-smoking vegetarian and did yoga every morning. He never reacted angrily when my mother called him names and bullied him, he was one of the most placid men I know, so he didn’t even fit the Type A profile.”
Marital stress is associated with thickening of the heart chamber (unlike job stress), elevated levels of adrenaline, high blood pressure and the production of cytokines which cause inflammation (a newly recognised cardiac risk).
However some studies appear to show that divorce can damage one’s physical health so dramatically that the person never recovers. Oh please! The end of a high-stress, unloving, possibly abusive relationship will immediately cause cortisol and adrenaline levels to sink as fear, unpredictability and constant repression of one’s own needs and desires disappear. It is often a matter of urgency that man should put asunder what God has joined together, and while we’re on the subject what is the point of a very long life lived in an unhappy marriage? There is no prize waiting at the finishing line.
There is no marriage contract detector in our genes; rather it is a social convention that being bound together under law – law is also not a biological feature – is stabilising. It is our perception that marriage is stable that reassures us. But for many people marriage is destabilising – especially people with depressed, aggressive, unloving, unfaithful, manipulative or personality-disordered spouses. The only factor causing illness in divorce from partners such as these is guilt and the feeling of failure, again coming straight out of our own thinking. Children raised in abusive and dysfunctional families will be more damaged than if they live with one loving parent. Lundy Bancroft in his book Why Does He Do That? reports that the men he treated for domestic abuse were men who witnessed their father abusing their mother. “I’m so afraid that divorcing my husband will damage my daughters,” said one woman, who had discovered her husband had been unfaithful dozens of times, including with women she thought were friends. But the opposite is true: a woman who does not love herself enough to change a life like that will model an unhealthy pattern of relationships to her daughters.
This isn’t rocket science. A relationship should last only as long as it serves the people in it – emotionally, not financially. For those who prefer the marriage bond, we need a new set of vows – not until death do us part, but as long as the relationship benefits us both. There are few benefits in getting married these days – pension rights and the next-of-kin status are some of the remaining legal perks – but many people feel these are insufficient to compensate for the legal fees and sense of failure if people wish to become unmarried, nor do they counterbalance the tendency to stop making an effort with each other once you have nabbed your man/woman which is so often the case within a legal bond. There are few things advocating involving the State in one’s love life, and many reasons for not doing so. Marriage certainly does not protect against boredom, strife, stress, abuse or infidelity – it never did. It does not protect children from emotional abandonment, and children’s happiness comes from empathetic and supportive parents, not from a legal institution.
A happy marriage is a wonderful way to live one’s life, but it is this word “happy” that these longevity studies so often leave out. Marriage is never more important than the people in it. Being married has nothing to do with life extension. Being happy does.