Live Better Longer
Follow me on Facebook
I was quoted in
the following:
Experience Life Article about "Fearless Aging"

April, 2016 issue of AARP Bulletin

New York Times article
about retirement coaching

Follow my national
retirement blog:

Priming for Positive Aging
November 12, 2016
"Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you." How many of us remember hearing that comforting advice when we were children? Well, it turns out our well-meaning mothers were not quite right about that. Not only can harmful words hurt, they can damage our happiness, well-being and success. But the flip side is positive words can improve our happiness, well-being, success and even how well we age.
Thanks to positive psychology research, we know about the power of priming. Psychologists use the term "priming" to refer to the activating of certain parts of the brain just before carrying out a task. Conscious or unconscious priming directs our awareness to some things more than others and influences us to respond in certain ways.

In one classic study, John Bargh and his colleagues discovered that participants who heard "rude" words were more likely to interrupt experimenters' conversations than those who heard "polite" words. In another study, Bargh reported that participants who heard the word "elderly" walked more slowly out of the research lab than those who did not hear the word "elderly."

Perhaps the most famous research demonstrating how priming affects aging is Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer's "Counterclockwise" Study. Langer took a group of mature men to a convent that had been retrofitted to look like it was twenty years earlier. The men lived there for a week and acted like they did when they were twenty years younger. The environment and the participant's behavior gave their bodies mental signals that they were younger. Their "mental health, physical strength, cognitive abilities, and youthful appearance all improved"-in just one week.

Although many primers are subconscious, we can consciously use primers to influence our behavior. Words, images, nature, feelings of awe, visualization and behavior are all proven primers. Being aware of how primers affect us and introducing positive primers and reducing negative primers into our environment can improve how we age.


Be alert to the message. Being called "honey" or "cute" by a much younger person, "She looks great for her age", "He is still working", "That's to be expected at your age"-all convey messages that abilities or value diminish after a certain age. Consciously using words that create images of vitality and ability positively influence actions.


Be aware of how the media portray older adults. Ads for retirement communities and erectile dysfunction drugs usually portray older adults as active and vibrant while TV and films often portray older adults as inept and forgetful. Be aware of the negative images and seek out and pay attention to the positive ones.


Research shows that spending time in nature benefits our bodies. Greater relaxation, increases in a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is associated with a lower risk of cancer and improvement in mood disorders are all documented benefits of spending time in nature. Experiencing nature is a great way to enhance physical and mental health. In 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, Dr. Andrew Weil encourages people to spend time in nature and keep fresh flowers in their home to promote good health.


Craig Anderson, co-creator of Project Awe, defines awe as "a response to things that are perceptually vast, that we don't fully understand at the moment." His research shows that after experiencing feelings of awe participants report greater feelings of social well-being. Other research shows that experiencing awe boosts the immune system, increases altruism and improves life satisfaction. It is not necessary to physically experience awe to get the benefits. Recalling an awe-inspiring event and looking at awesome videos and images also elicit feelings of awe.


Visualization, or mental rehearsal, has been around since the 1970s, and numerous studies have demonstrated its effectiveness, showing how it trains the brain for performance. A simple approach to visualization is to decide your goal, breathe deeply, relax, see it as clearly as possible in your mind, and then see yourself accomplishing your goal. Repeat. Visualization is a powerful way to address feelings of declining abilities or confidence.


How we act affects how we feel. Walk with energy; feel more energetic. Stand up straight; feel more confident. In my college counseling days, I advised students who were nervous about job interviews to act like a confident interviewee. Acting like they were confident helped them to feel more confident. Like the men in the "Counterclockwise" study, acting like our younger selves can improve our health. A simple behavioral change to help us feel healthier is to focus on standing straighter. The straighter we stand, the healthier and stronger we feel.

We are surrounded by primers that positively or negatively affect how we age. Knowing how primers affect us helps us intentionally influence our environment to promote optimal aging. Small actions can lead to big results.

The environment is everything that isn't me.
Albert Einstein

©2010 Ageinista L.L.C