How Old Are You in Your Head?

I’m ushering in 2024 as a 64-year-old. Just typing that makes me catch my breath. As a kid, I remember listening to the Beatles sing “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” and thinking that 64 must be impossibly old. But now I’m here, and I don’t feel impossibly old. In fact, in my head, I feel somewhere around the age of 40.

There’s a strange disconnect between how old our bodies are and how old we feel in our heads. I walk around feeling nearly 25 years younger than I actually am, but the disconnect doesn’t become obvious unless I’m talking about my age, or I look in the mirror. The mirror doesn’t lie. My head may tell me I’m one age, but the mirror doesn’t pull any punches. No matter how young I feel in my head, the mirror reminds me of my true chronological age.

Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Senior (53 in real life, 36 in her head) wrote about this phenomenon of being a different age in your head than the number of birthdays you’ve celebrated. In her article in the Atlantic, Senior wrote of a study conducted by Dr. David Rubin (75 in real life, 60 in his head), a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. The study found that adults over 40 routinely perceive themselves to be about 20% younger than their actual age. This phenomenon—which is referred to as the Rubin-Berntsen Rule (Dorthe Berntsen co-authored the paper with Rubin)—identified this paradox, but they didn’t delve into why it occurs.

Senior offered some possibilities. She writes:

“I’m 53 in real life but suspended at 36 in my head, and if I stop my brain from doing its usual Tilt-A-Whirl for long enough, I land on the same explanation: At 36, I knew the broad contours of my life, but hadn’t yet filled them in. I was professionally established, but still brimmed with potential. I was paired off with my husband, but not yet lost in the marshes of a long marriage (and, okay, not yet a tiresome fishwife). I was soon to be pregnant, but not yet a mother fretting about eating habits, screen habits, study habits, the brutal folkways of adolescents, the porn merchants of the internet.”

Richard Primus, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, like Senior, is also 53 years old, and feels 35 in his head. “I think it’s because that’s the age I was when my major life questions/statuses reached the resolutions/conditions in which they’ve since remained.” In other words, for Primus, his “head age” was set at a time when he settled into his life. His major relationship and career statuses were set, and while his body continued to age, his “head age” remained the same.

Primus went on to explain: “Medieval Christian theologians asked the intriguing question ‘How old are people in heaven?’ The dominant answer: 33. Partly because (of the) age of Jesus at crucifixion. But I think partly because it feels like a kind of peak for the combined vigor-maturity index.”

I’m not sure if the “vigor-maturity index” is a real thing or if Primus made it up. Either way, I like it. It proports to measure the age at which we feel the most physically capable while also reaching a point where our lives—primarily our relationships and careers—are reasonably set.

If you are good at math, you may have noticed that my “head age” doesn’t correspond with the Rubin-Berntsen Rule. Rather than feeling like I’m 20% younger than my actual age, I feel I’m a whopping 37.5% younger.  As Senior points out: “Internally viewing yourself as substantially younger than you are can make for some serious social weirdness…I’ve had this unsettling experience, seeing little difference between the 30-something before me and my 50-something self, when suddenly the 30-something will make a comment that betrays just how aware she is of the age gap between us, that this gap seems enormous.”

Sometimes, the large gap between actual age and “head age” can be traced to a traumatic event or meaningful life experience. For instance, one person Senior wrote about saw herself as 32, the same age her sister was when she died. Another was stuck at the “head age” of just 12, which is when her father joined a cult. Yet another had a “head age of 19 because that is the age when she became sober.

Although the Rubin-Berntsen Rule doesn’t work so well for me, the vigor-maturity index does. At 40, I was in good physical health, I was having success in my career, and I was married, with one child born and another one on the way. Life was good. Maybe the best it had ever been. It makes sense that I would feel 40 in my head.

Sadly, a few years later, my life seemed to head downhill, and it stayed that way for the next 20 years or so. I gave up a promising corporate career to start my own business (I’m still not sure if that was a smart thing to do), I battled cancer (twice), I got divorced (probably for the best), I ended another relationship (probably a mistake), and was diagnosed with a brain tumor (sounds worse than it actually is). Of course, that’s not all that has happened over the past couple of decades. During that time, I’ve also completed two masters degrees, published seven books, built a house, sold that house (again, probably a mistake), and moved to a log cabin in the woods, where I live like a recluse (both good and bad).

As I look forward to 2024, there’s so much I still want to do with my life. I have many more books to write. In fact, I have 20-25 books in various stages of development, and I’m redoubling my efforts to get them all written.

I’ve considered returning to school to get a PhD or law degree. I’ve had various people tell me I’m nuts for going back to school. They say I’m too old. But am I really? With any luck, I still have a lot of years to live. In fact, if I’m lucky, about a third of my life remains. I want this final third to be the most productive, consequential period of my life.

I’d like to travel more. There are places I’ve always wanted to go but have never made the time. I want to experience places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park (and several other national parks), Alaska, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Portugal (Okay, all of Europe), and Cuba. I’d like to return to Romania, the Virgin Islands (American and British), and spend much more time in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

I know that’s a lot of stuff. It all takes gobs of time and effort. But it shouldn’t be all that difficult. After all, I’m only 40.

Happy New Year!


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