By Mike Sarraille and Jason Boulay
There are plenty of ways to maintain peak performance at different stages of your life. A positive mindset and ability to tap into flow state are chief among them.
If you’re unfamiliar, a flow state occurs when someone is so focused and immersed in an activity that their perception of time and self-awareness drifts into the background. Athletes often refer to this as being in the zone, while artists might describe it as a creative trance. Regardless of terminology, it’s a powerful tool that allows us to accomplish extraordinary things.
The late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow theory in the 1970s. Since then, it’s been further researched, developed, and promoted by Steven Kotler, The New York Times bestselling author, performance expert, and recent Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast guest.
In a society that worships youth and shuns the wrinkles of experience, one might assume that aging is a dismal journey toward inevitable decline. This article explores how researchers like Kotler are turning the tide on aging’s perceived downward trajectory.
First, We Must Believe
The inexorable march of time may be an unyielding force, but the human spirit is no less relentless. Countless individuals refuse to be defined by age and maintain peak performance well into their golden years.
Is it a genetic gift, or is there something we can learn from them about aging with grace and, more importantly, purpose?
Psychologists and gerontologists have long explored the effects of mindset on aging, and their findings are intriguing and inspiring. A positive outlook, it seems, can do more than brighten one’s mood. It can also significantly impact cognitive function, physical health, and overall well-being.
After 20 years of research, the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement revealed those who remain optimistic during the second half of their lives could live an extra seven and a half years. In other words, to maintain peak performance as we age, we must first believe we can.
A Time of Renewal
But what exactly does a positive mindset entail? It goes beyond simple optimism or a penchant for seeing the glass half-full. Instead, it encompasses a broader worldview that encourages personal growth, adaptation, and resilience. As the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”
Of course, cultivating such a mindset is easier said than done. We must challenge the societal norms and expectations that shape our understanding of aging. Far too often, we view the passing years as an inevitable descent into decline, a steady erosion of our physical and mental faculties that culminates in a life of dependency and passivity. But with the proper perspective, aging can be a time of renewal, a period of exploration and self-discovery ripe with possibility.
Consider the pioneering research of Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University who spent decades investigating the impact of mindset on aging. In one of her most famous experiments, the counterclockwise study, Langer invited a group of elderly men to spend a week in a monastery retrofitted to replicate the world of 1959. Surrounded by the music, clothing, and trappings of their youth, the men soon exhibited measurable improvements in their physical strength, flexibility, and cognitive abilities.
Langer’s conclusion? The mind can be a powerful ally in the quest for vitality and longevity.
Kotler, who has written extensively on the science of human performance, says flow state is accessible to everyone, and while “it helps to start young, we know from the data that intervention at any age, even in your late eighties and nineties, can move the needle.”
Unlocking these superpowers, however, requires more effort the older we get. Individuals must maintain a strong sense of identity and purpose, engage in creative activities, train their bodies against physical fragility, and push past their natural risk aversion.
According to Kotler, the formula for peak performance involves engaging in dynamic sports such as tennis or skiing, pursuing creative hobbies like playing an instrument or diving into amateur photography, and participating in social activities that foster a sense of belonging and community.
The specific pursuit is less important than the process. What matter most is achieving a continual cycle of growth, risk, and reward that keeps us firmly planted in the present.
The Next Chapter
The most important lesson we can learn is that the passage of time need not be a harbinger of decline and that the secret of our golden years lies not in the fountain of youth but in our hearts and minds.
In this brave new world, the only limits are those we impose upon ourselves. By embracing a positive mindset and the lessons in Kotler’s new book, Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad, we can challenge our cultural obsession with youth and celebrate the wisdom only time can provide.
The Talking Series is a weekly segment that digs deeper into topics discussed by guests of the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior Podcast. A new episode of the Podcast is released each Tuesday.