Can you introduce yourself, please?
My name is Ellen Heuven. I am a Dutch researcher, speaker, trainer, and coach in the field of positive psychology. I worked on my doctorate at the Psychology department of Utrecht University, studying work engagement and emotional labor. At the Dutch Institute of Applied Sciences, my research focused on the motivation and empowerment of the long-term unemployed. Currently, I train coaches and trainers in applying insights and tools from positive psychology.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea for this book arose during a walk with my sister Irma Heuven who has been inspiring tens of thousands of followers around the world through her Instagram account ‘Chapter 50’, spreading the message of positive aging. The enormous popularity of her account shows the need for a shift in the perception and experience of aging. I felt that same need myself. In the year I turned fifty, my husband left me for a woman twenty years my junior. In our youth-oriented Western culture, I set out to understand what is better, more beautiful, and more inspiring about older women. In the rollercoaster year of my divorce, I found all the answers, not only as an objective researcher but also in a genuine connection with all the women who shared their stories, their wisdom, and strength.
Can you tell me about the book?
The book links the individual life stories of twenty women around the globe with scientific insights from, among others, positive psychology. The book focuses not so much on how lives become easier or more comfortable with aging, but rather on the expanding set of life skills that helps women to deal with the challenges and joys of life. Positive aging does not mean achieving wealth, being in shape, or flourishing in an inspiring marriage. While these conditions can certainly contribute to a sense of well-being in aging, the emphasis of this book is on inner qualities, talents, attitudes, and the art of living all of which can be developed and cultivated regardless of circumstances.
While it is undeniable that certain physical functions start to decline from a certain age, both the life stories of the interviewees and scientific literature show that psychological functioning can become more robust into old age. The women in this book are inspiring role models who show how you can grow, live a fulfilling life, and achieve goals, not so much DESPITE but WITH or THANKS to aging. As the American psychiatrist Gene Cohen once commented:
“There is no denying the problems that accompany aging, but what has been universally denied is the potential”
What surprised you the most?
Many things surprised me. For example, that older women are very capable of seeing the beauty of other older women, while men and young people are less capable of doing so. Women of an older age can recognize the beauty of other women in their age group and are less prone than men or younger people to glorify a fresh-faced, youthful look. Age and beauty really are in the eye of the beholder. Older women are more likely to see and appreciate the beauty of other older women. Women of more advanced age can resist and challenge the youth-focused ideals of feminine attractiveness that have predominated under patriarchy, and they can propose alternative beauty ideals.
What was the hardest part of your writing process?
I honestly would not know how to answer that question. The interviews with the women have been very inspiring, and I have been feeling very driven and enthusiastic about writing the book. Maybe the hardest part was to find the time to write, having a very full life as a working single mother. I often woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning to start doing research and writing. I found that it is a very inspiring moment of the day when the world is quiet and you are really alone with your mind.
How did you choose the women in your book?
I selected the interviewees together with my sister from the followers of her Instagram. Since there seem to be differences in aging between the sexes, this book focuses specifically on women. A book about 50-plus men will follow soon. I wanted a wide variety of women, without having the pretense that this is an anthropological study. I would have liked to speak to more African and Asian women, and also to have included lesbian women. But at a certain point, the book was finished.
I spoke to women with highly successful careers, and women who are not in paid employment; women in happy marriages and women who have endured traumatic divorce; women who are very wealthy, and women who live on modest incomes; women who have rich family lives, and women who live alone; women of distinction, and women who lead modest lives out of the spotlight; women experiencing menopause, and women who are already octogenarians; extroverted women with many friends, and introverted women who like to spend time on their own. Regardless of their external circumstances, or the characters in the lives of these women, every life story represents, in a specific manner, inner strength, love of life, resilience, and optimism.
Was it easy for the women to open up to you?
It was very easy because the type of questions was not defect-focused, but rather growth-focused. I noticed that at the end of the interview women felt empowered and positively reinforced, just by asking questions such as: ‘What advantages has aging brought you so far?’ and ‘What (positive thing) has increased with age?’ I actually think that it is very useful for yourself to reflect on this type of question, instead of asking yourself constantly what is going downhill with aging. As one of the women said: “I would want other women to view aging as a positive time of change and revitalization, rather than a time of decline. I think that the medical community sends out too many negative messages related to declining, rather than ones of renewal and development”
Why do you think, it is important to read the book?
I think that reading the book can help tremendously in creating a vision of how you want to grow older, inspired by the role models in the book, and in offering a psychological guideline, that can support you in positive aging. The nice thing about the book is that the stories of the women can illustrate and make very lively psychological theories that can normally feel very abstract to understand. In the book, the women make these theories very practical in explaining how you can apply them in your day-to-day life. I believe that basic psychological knowledge, especially from positive psychology, is very helpful in dealing with some of the challenges of aging.
What can we learn from it?
We can learn that aging can be a very inspiring journey of growth and happiness. One of the women I interviewed said: “it is a total swelling of the mind’. Also, we can become conscient of negative stereotypes, and how to defy them. For myself, the interviews with the women as well as the research I did for the book have brought me a completely new vision on aging.
What did you learn when writing the book?
That aging is wonderful, and that I look forward to growing older. That many aspects of aging are very different from what we think aging implies when we are young.
Are you planning to write more books?
Yes, I am planning to write my next book about positive aging for men. I am really looking forward to it.
The book ‘ psychology of positive aging‘ is now available on Amazon.