~ By Robin Avery ~

This is the end. Count backwards from ten. You’re getting ready to get off the bus. You’ve been on this planet for 70, 80, 90 or more years. How many times have you looked up into heaven’s vastness and asked, yourself, “What’s out there?” You may be about to find out
and it’s both thrilling and unsettling.

It’s time to leave the table and make room for someone else. The tiller and sail that helped you navigate through life are less useful. The wind has calmed to almost nothing. There is nothing left to desire. Your number of sunsets is finite. But before we discuss this final life stage development, which I refer to as Integrity, let’s look at how we got here.

This is the last of a series of articles exploring the landmark Harvard study of adult development titled “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life.” The conclusions in this 2002 book are based on a study of 824 individuals and their behaviors that began with Harvard sophomores in 1938. It is the oldest, most thorough study of aging ever undertaken anywhere in the world. From the experiences of these 824 individuals, the book attempts to generalize theories about behaviors that promote health and good living, and those that don’t.

The study concluded that there are six important personal characteristics that if they are present in one’s life at age 50 will strongly indicate whether that person will get to age 80. The six are having a warm marriage, possessing adaptive, mature coping strategies, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, having an active lifestyle that includes exercise, and not being overweight. Those who possess these six attributes are better at navigating through what Vaillant calls “the minefields of aging.” He calls them “the happy well.” The happy well are those “whom subjectively enjoy their lives and are objectively healthy.” By contrast, the “sad sick” are people “who feel sad and both feel and are sick.”

In this series, which started with the April column titled “Optimal Aging,” we have looked at Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning, and mature and healthy coping mechanisms like Sublimation. We explored Mindfulness and how it can have a powerful effect on Optimal Aging. Perhaps, in keeping with the logic in this series, you’ve left the naughtiness of Id and the illusion of Ego behind, and are abiding in the Super Ego.

In Buddhism, there is something referred to as “No Reference Point.” It’s a way of describing that insight where belief systems are suspended, thus doing away with the This and That, the Me and Thou, the Oughta, Woulda, Shouldas. Certainly, there is deep integrity in this place. The integrity of old age may be demonstrating living “In the Moment,” recognizing and abiding in the blessing and the opportunity of a life.

The process that allows an individual to successfully navigate the minefields of aging, and to achieve a sense of integrity, like wisdom, is unique to every individual. However, we are too much alike to think that this Integrity has many faces. To my way of thinking, the process must include an honest life review, as well as a reconciliation of doubts, mistakes, tragedies and personal failings. There is, most likely, a very conscious forgiveness for one’s own weaknesses and harm caused, as well as for the harmful actions of others. When this work is done, the peaceful acceptance and personal celebration comes without a lot of chrome, mahogany and chandeliers. It’s capable of being a grand simplicity, and a deep nobility.

Looking at the etymology of integrity, we find it first around 1400 AD in the Old French integrite’, where it was used to describe a sense of wholeness, blamelessness, and soundness. It is found in the root word integer or “whole.” An integer can be written without a fractional component.

Engineers talk about integrity in a specific and interesting way, one that possibly sheds light on our question. Integrity to an engineer means that the design, assurance and verification processes result in the product or system they intended. Engineers will conduct a “3 Ps” review – People, Process and Product. To me, this is the same as Structure, Process and Outcome. It applies to how one achieves integrity in the final phase of life by understanding the Structure/Person, Process/Life Review, and Product/Quality of Death, achieving a personal sense of integrity.

One can have a deep and abiding awe of the world, and die in awe of that event, and be one with their source, at last. Having perhaps lived in integrity, it would be much easier to die in integrity.

Whenever preparing for a wild ride, whether in Grandpa’s pickup roaring down a dirt road, a ride on the new snowmobile in fresh snow or a fast, exhilirating amusement ride at the county fair, “hang on tight” was the rule. For the approaching ride, this now “just let go.”

An elderly lady who lost her husband and was forced to move to a nursing home surprised the staff with her uplifted attitude and happy countenance. It was so rare, that he staff was naturally concerned her spirit would be broken when she saw her little room that would have to be shared with a stranger. To the contrary, this wonderful Elder was delighted and expressed how happy she was to be in a warm and safe place, with such nice window curtains.

She went on to explain to the startled staff, “Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in. So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories Thank you for your part in filling my Memory bank. I am still depositing.” And with a smile, she said: “Remember the five simple rules to be happy:

1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less”

Robin Avery

Robin Avery

This finishes the look at the landmark Harvard study of adult development titled “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life.” The author is going to start a series of interviews with Optimal Agers, and is going to a column every three months. Thank you, readers, for your reading these columns. It is greatly appreciated.

Robin Avery is the Founder of Shanagolden Management, LLC, a Wisconsin Badger, a Gerontologist, and Founder of Robin can be reached at


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