Photo by Tom Hussey. Link.
One of our interns this summer called me “Mr. Jennings” and the entire summer basically treated me like my age (53). It makes sense. He’s 19, and his parents are about my age plus he’s an intern and I’m president of the company. Yet, every time something like that happens, it surprises me. When I hang out with my co-workers in their 20s and 30s, I often forget that I’m not their age. I’m also surprised when I look in the mirror and see gray hair and signs of my chronological age. I’m amazed because, in my head, I think of myself as about 35. This leads to cognitive dissonance for me nearly daily.
I’m not alone. It’s common to think of yourself as younger than your age. A study of nearly 1,500 Danish adults aged between 20 and 97 found adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, about 20 percent younger than their actual age. Here’s a chart from the paper:
You can see that until about age 25, the respondents felt a bit older than their subjective age, but the older the respondents got, the bigger the gap between their actual and perceived age. Interesting. Another study out of the University of Montpellier examining data on 17,000 middle-aged and elderly participants and found that most people felt about eight years younger than their chronological age.
Thinking of ourselves as younger than we are is a worldwide phenomenon but is more pronounced in the West; the gap is smaller in Asia and Africa. Researchers speculate this difference between the West and Asia/Africa is due to each region’s culture about youth and age. In Asia and Africa, aging is viewed more favorably and elders are more respected and supported. In the West, we lionize youth and tend to view aging with dread. So maybe “a lower subjective age is a form of self-defence, protecting us from the negative age stereotypes.” Source.
Viewing ourselves as younger than we are may have health benefits. The University of Montpellier study found that those who viewed themselves as older than their age had an 18-25% greater risk of death over the study period. Another study had elderly volunteers engage in strength training and found that those who were induced to feel younger experienced greater strength gains than a control group.
Maybe thinking of ourselves as having a lower subjective age is a form of optimism. Anna Kornadt at Bielefeld University in Germany found that people with a lower subjective age tended to imagine their future self in a more positive light. “By protecting us from our society’s dismal view of ageing and giving us a more optimistic view of our future, this self-defence could, in turn, further explain some of the health benefits of feeling younger than you really are.” Source. As I wrote about in a recent IFOD, optimistic people live longer.