Living a long and vital life is a goal that most of us share. How precisely it can be achieved, however, has remained a largely unsolved puzzle. What is the key to longevity? How is it possible to maintain a youthful outlook and energy level as we advance in years? Just what are the 'secrets' of those exceptional elderly people who have mastered the challenges of life?
One expression of the general interest in the subject of longevity is the large amount of statistical data that has been gathered about individuals and communities who reach unusually advanced ages. This information can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) data about communities that, as a group, reach an exceptionally high average age, and 2) data about individuals who reach unusually high ages compared to their peers in the same community.
An example of research in the first category (healthy communities) is the study of inhabitants of areas like the Hunza-region in Pakistan and Abkhasia in Russia. An example of the second type of research (healthy individuals) would be the study by George Gallup (1966) which investigated the habits and lifestyle of 402 Americans with an average age of 99 years.
The primary method for conducting statistical research on longevity involves contrasting long living individuals or communities with shorter living ones. As a result of this contrast statistically significant differences are determined. All relationships discovered in this way are correlational in nature. For instance: statistical research shows that moderate drinking correlates with high age, it doesn't prove that it actually causes high age. There is always the possibility of a third factor causing both moderate drinking and high age. Statistical research might establish a correlation between eating ice cream and death by drowning; the third factor in this case being hot weather. Secondly, this type of research concerns itself with averages. And as the saying goes: "You can easily drown in most rivers with an average depth of three feet."
The correlations that have been found this way, involve hereditary factors, behavioral and nutritional factors, personality factors and social factors. They can be summarized as follows:
Long living communities and individuals (on the average):
Even though statistical data doesn't prove any causal relationships, it provides a fairly clear ideal (and composite) picture of the lifestyle and personality of the active, healthy 90-year old. He or she is a happy, flexible person with a moderate, balanced lifestyle and harmonious social relationships. The next question then becomes: "How does one become such a person?" Since most people in our society already know that the described lifestyle is healthy, we know that a simple instruction like "Live happily and moderately" is not enough. We want to find the psychological processes which organize most of the statistically significant factors into a consistent life pattern that can be maintained in a relaxed and almost automatic fashion. We know roughly what a vital old person does, now we need to know how he does it.
Most of this information, however, is on the level of behavioral, environmental and general personality factors. Two crucial elements have been missing:
In order to implement such a system, we need to explore the overall psychological factors required to organize and support the behavioral and environmental patterns. Cognitive strategies, beliefs, identity and 'spiritual' issues influence our will to live, our ability to cope with stress created by life-transitions and our ability to establish consistently healthy life-patterns. The importance of these deeper levels of organization is becoming more and more acknowledged by the medical profession. Dr. Peter Van Der Schaar, for instance, director of the International Biomedical Center in the Netherlands (a leading cardio-vascular surgeon for over 25 years and an orthomolecular specialist studying the biochemical aspects of life extension), proposes that all surgical and chemical knowledge is basically powerless to extend life, unless the patient is able to establish healthy overall life patterns.
In addition to environmental and behavioral factors, psychological factors have also been shown to influence the health of aging people. Rodin (1986) cites a relationship between health and a sense of control in elderly people. Her studies showed that there were detrimental effects on the health of older people when their control of their activities was restricted; in contrast, interventions that enhanced options for control by nursing home patients promoted health.
Rodin also reported a relationship between physical health, sense of control and 'symptom labeling' in people of all ages. That is, a person's sense of control effected the way he or she experienced and labeled bodily sensations as symptoms relevant to health or illness and vice versa. In other words, people who have less of a sense of control are more apt to label a physical sensation as a 'symptom' of illness. Likewise the label given a particular physical sensation will effect the degree of control a person feels about it.
Certainly, in recent years, the body of data connecting health and attitude has grown significantly. There are numerous indications that the attitude of an elderly person towards life may influence their health in many ways. NLP has much to add to this exploration.
With the tools and processes provided by Neuro-Linguistic Programming, we can begin to build a pragmatic model of the psychological elements necessary for living a long and vital life. NLP has been applied already to the study of the how mental strategies and belief systems influence illness (Dilts; 1980, 1983, 1990). Strategy and belief techniques were developed to help people deal with illness more effectively, but these techniques have naturally been remedial in nature. The extension of life involves more than avoiding and overcoming illness - it requires strategies and beliefs that allow us to achieve positive overall life patterns and attitudes.
NLP was originally developed through the modeling of the shared cognitive, linguistic and behavioral patterns of exceptional therapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. The same modeling principles may be used to find the patterns of exceptional elderly people who have successfully mastered the aging process.
In May 1988 Robert Dilts and Jaap Hollander conducted an NLP modeling project to identify the strategies and beliefs of four vital and active elderly Dutch people. The project was conducted in a 2 1/2 day workshop-format, organized by the Institute for Eclectic Psychology (IEP) of Nijmegen in The Netherlands.
The workshop involved 35 advanced NLP practitioners who participated in the modeling design and assisted in the observation phase. The program started with an evening session during which specific modeling questions were generated and selected. Questions centered around issues such as life transitions, time lines and time perception, relationships to significant others, personal beliefs and values, strategies for coping with stress, illness and death, and attitudes about aging. The following is the list of questions that were asked during the interviews.
The most basic rules for effective and successful behavior according to Neuro-Linguistic Programming are:
Each of the models in the NLP study demonstrated a stubborn determination to achieve their own goals in life and the flexibility to 'roll with the punches' in order to get to those goals. Further, each goal had a concrete expression - whether it was in bicycle racing, writing books, church activities, or fashion and nature.
The models violated some of the statistical data from previous studies. For example, instead of long relationships, each had lost at least one spouse and some at an early age. They had all gone through some fairly difficult and traumatic changes such as the war, etc. Rather than the types of environment or events that surrounded our models, it was their approach to these experiences that seemed to be the 'difference that makes the difference'. This conclusion is supported by mounting medical evidence on the interplay between mind and body.
The results of the interviews may be summarized as follows.
Patterns For Life Extension
It is interesting to note that these results appear to match with the advice of another, more well known, vital elderly person. In an interview in USA Today on his 90th birthday, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (which has sold 15 million copies in 40 languages since 1952), gave the following tips for success, health and happiness:
Peale, who still travels and lectures regularly, stands as a good model for the potential effects of his own advice.
The common approach to life shared by the four models in the NLP study (and echoed by others such as Norman Vincent Peale) can be summarized by the following six steps:
Six Steps to a Long and Vital Life:
The essence to the models' message about how to live a long and vital life seems to be "Concentrate more on putting more life in your years than years on your life," and longevity will come as a natural result.
A key concern of NLP, of course, is how to put such information into practical applications once it has been gathered. According to NLP we must answer the question, "How do we install the beliefs and strategies of these vital elderly models into other people?"
Actually, numerous methods already exist for enhancing developing positive belief systems and attitudes. The repetition of positive verbal affirmations and the use of hypnotic suggestion have been used for years to install positive beliefs. In fact, one study showed that elderly nursing home residents who simply received positive hypnotic suggestions for health and long life, lived an average of six years longer than residents at the same institution who received no suggestions!
Visualization techniques also exist and have been shown to produce a significant impact on health - even in cases of severe illness such as cancer. Physical stress reduction and relaxations techniques are also available. Our modeling results indicate that there would be positive results in the area of life extension from learning to be more in touch with one's feelings and physiology.
Many of these methods, however, often tend to lack the level of technology necessary to build the specific skills and strategies required to actually carry through with the results of such verbal suggestions or visualizations. They are often more likely to be successful in helping to direct and organize individuals who already have coping strategies available to them.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming provides many such specific skills and techniques for developing new strategies and beliefs that involve all of the senses. NLP techniques such as Reframing, the New Behavior Generator, Well-Formedness Conditions for outcomes and Future Pacing provide specific tools to learn many of the important processes described by the models in our study. Advanced NLP skills such as Reimprinting, the Swish Pattern and Integration of Conflicting Beliefs can help people to overcome barriers to these beliefs and strategies should they need it. All of these step-by-step procedures are accessible through the books (Dilts, 1990) and seminars on NLP that are available worldwide, and are beyond the scope of this article.
As a result of the research described above, Dilts designed a specific technique/exercise (see Pattern of the Month) to help directly install both the beliefs and strategies of the vital elderly models. This process may be used to help develop positive beliefs and resources for almost any kind of issue.
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