It's a Guy Thing

Thinking Ourselves Old

How does our mental attitude affect our physical appearance? 

The inevitably of aging didn’t resonate with me at all until, in my late twenties, I started to go thin on top. Even then, the rest of me seemed to be in fine fettle: skin pretty radiant, eyes aglow, and limbs lithe – even if I do say so myself! The trigger signaling a clear spiraling away from my youthful shine was simply a color; a visual spark that caused a change in my thinking process. I suddenly realized that I was well on my way to transforming into an oldie. The offending color? Grey. Not fifty shades – just a consistent tone scattered across my hairy regions: head, face (including the ridiculous mustache I felt compelled to grow as part of my police officer heritage), chest ─ and fucking pubes! This physical change in my appearance – an almost overnight phenomenon – had a psychological effect too as I began to feel old and, looking back at the photographs of me during this transitional period, I have to admit that my newly formed thought patterns had begun to influence other parts of my persona. I began to mimic some of the lines in the wonderfully poignant track “Strong” by Robbie Williams:

My breath smells of a thousand fags

And when I’m drunk I dance like me dad

I’ve started to dress a bit like him

And Early morning when I wake up

I look like Kiss but without the make-up…”

(Songwriters: Robert Peter Williams, Guy Antony Chambers)

Just for the record, I didn’t have halitosis.

I suspect I could easily have plummeted to new depths of early onset maturity by, amongst other things, purchasing a flat cap, tartan slippers, and a zip-up cardigan; however, frustration came to my rescue when awaking one morning in Beijing, China. Having adopted a number one haircut for several years, the reflection in the mirror that particular morning in the mystic east was the final straw. The mad professor look, coupled with the growing number of grey flecks, had to go, and within half an hour I had shaved my dome and removed the top lip garnish. I was completely bald. As I walked amid the bustling outdoor market, I couldn’t help but frequently touch my somewhat velvety barren head. Over the coming days, as I grew accustomed to this new look, something spectacular happened – I felt younger! 

To some this may sound a fairly dramatic course of action; yet, premature aging can be significantly seismic, and any simple ways of lessening the appearance of losing one’s luster has – surely ─ to be worthy of further inquiry. Initially, though, I had to establish if pessimistic thinking patterns could accelerate the visual signs of aging.

Not far off fifty years ago Robert Atchley, Ph.D. – gerontologist extraordinaire (in summary, an expert within the scientific study of old age and the process of aging) conducted an illuminating piece of research. Engaging with every resident, fifty years or older, in the town of Oxford, Ohio, a sizable majority of the population agreed to take part in his longitudinal study of aging and retirement. Contained within the research topics were several questions that connected with the respondent’s viewpoints on getting old. This dataset grew substantially over the following years and latterly Becca Levy, PhD, used this enormous statistical reservoir to answer the question: Could people’s attitudes toward aging influence how long they lived?

Interrogating death certificates and comparing them with participant feedback Becca Levy discovered that people who thought more positively lived, on average, nearly eight years longer than the doomsters. So, my euphoria at changing my appearance really could have a demonstrable effect on my longevity. I could defy the process of aging! 

According to the 2021 Census the average life expectancy of a British male is 78.6 years so my yippee mindset could buy me – as near as damn it ─ an extra 10% of life. In testing this assertion further, I returned to some earlier research I conducted during an examination of “people watching” – a pastime many of us engage in whilst frequenting public spaces. In a nutshell, I circulated three separate photographs of me in three different environments ─ formal, play, and chilling on holiday ─ to a sample group I had never met (via friends of friends), posing the question, “How old?” The cumulative age prediction was incredible – a whopping 15% below the real collection of candles on my last birthday cake! Maybe Chinese philosopher Confucius was bang on the money when he claimed, “You are what you think.” And I am more than happy to accept that my childlike view on life – minus a thatch – continues to pay dividends; however, not everyone can simply shave their bonce and act the clown, so, are there any other nuggets of behaviour capable of nudging back the dial, other than the obvious strategies of a healthy diet, exercise, clean-living, and getting plenty of shut eye?

In 2010 Ernest L. Abel and Michael L. Kruger of Wayne State University, Detroit conducted research on how the simple act of smiling can prolong life. Reviewing 230 photographs of baseball players faces, they concluded that those with partial smiles ─ at least a smirk – lived, on average, two years longer than those who didn’t smile at all. Those who beamed the best lived around seven years longer than those who kept a brake on the chuckle muscles. When we smile, hormones, including dopamine and serotonin, are released into the bloodstream. The former heightens our feeling of joy, whilst the latter reduces stress. So, find something to smile about! But if you are prone to being a misery guts – as we all can be on occasions ─ try simulation! That’s simulation and not stimulation. 

Depression weakens the immune system and inevitably leads to premature aging. As Doctor Murray Grossan ─ an ear, nose and throat otolaryngologist based in Los Angeles, asserts, “What’s crazy is that just the physical act of smiling can make a difference in building your immunity. When you smile, the brain sees the muscle activity and assumes that humor is happening.”

Positive thinking is crucial and is a subject that’s been widely written about. I have to confess I have shied away from the majority of books on the subject – in part because of the often supercilious-looking authors with fake smiles who adorn the covers. OK, I now know that they are likely to extend their lives, but nonetheless, it puts me off the purchase; however, there is an exception I would like to share. The book, “What to say when you talk to yourself,” by Shad Helmstetter is – in my opinion – legendary literature. Based on the irrevocable premise that we all speak to ourselves – you are doing it right now as you read – a lot of what we tell ourselves is negative and potentially harmful. Simple approaches reap rapid results, and since reading the book I’ve had occasions where I have corrected myself and viewed the situation from a more optimistic position. I haven’t yet gone off in a sulk and not spoken to myself as that would be crazy – yet talking to yourself is not bizarre. You can be your best mate.

As I bring this reflection to a conclusion, I acknowledge this is a subject that has confronted humanity since time immemorial. Even Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, mused “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.” I am more minded to champion George Burns – the late, great, American comedian who concluded, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” Smiling, cigar-chomping George lived to a hundred years of age.

Q.E.D. *

* An acronym for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum – case proven.


© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke