Renaissance Advice for a Long, Happy Life


An unpleasant demeanor in older adults has more to do with individual factors than with one’s chronological age. Self-reflection, however, is always a good thing, and will keep you on track when it comes to how you really want to live your life—at any age. Apart from differences in personality (for example, those who had a biting personality in youth often become caricatures of themselves in old age), there are many reasons a person might display animosity towards others as they age. Examples include feeling marginalized by society, not having a full social life, lack of interests, projects and hobbies, or not feeling well physically. Additionally, Erik Erikson , best known for his psychosocial theory of human development, believed that bitterness often sets in when a person feels regret towards the end of the lifespan.
Renaissance humanists were actually the early precursors of modern day gerontology. The works of Luigi Cornaro (Trattato della Vita Sobria, 1558) and Gabriele Zerbi (Gerontocomia, 1489) emphasized the importance of lifestyle on “virtu”, or aging well, which makes their writings seem more like interesting self help manuals than stuffy medical treatises. Neither of these Italian medical scholars treated old age as pathological, and both believed that a vibrant old age is perfectly attainable. Here are some guidelines that provide us with age-old wisdom for a happy long life:
The “non naturals” often written about in that era, referred to external influences (i.e., outside of the internal physical realm of the body) that promote or hinder well-being as we age. Throughout our life, but especially as we age, we need to pay attention to what we eat and drink, the quality of air we breathe, how much rest, sleep, and exercise we get, what kind of clothing we wear, and the kind of thoughts that we allow to occupy our mind. Cornaro espoused the principle of moderation at mealtime; believing that if we eat less we will live longer than those who overeat. His own dietary regimen included the regular consumption of light broth with an egg, poultry, and saltwater fish. Behavioral psychologists who work in the field of weight loss today, often employ some of the mental techniques, now called “ aversion therapy”, that were first brought to light by Cornaro. For example, Cornaro wrote that it was important to abstain from even looking at “delicacies”, and to imagine them as not delicious, but as “filthy, sordid and detestable”.
Zerbi also advised those in their golden years not only to eat moderately, but to eat foods that promote health in various organs of the body. Treats could include honey, fresh cheese, figs, pistachios, and a bit of good wine. Exercise should be done only in moderation, and not to the extreme. Sleep should be long and restful, without lingering too long in bed. An upbeat mental attitude was also deemed important with respect to healthy aging, and to promote this, Zerbi recommended stimulating conversation, (something that Cornaro also advised); as well as exposure to music, and surrounding oneself with objects of visual beauty.
Practicing good mental and physical health habits now will very likely lead you to enjoy the precious gift of your life each and every year and especially as you move into old age. Remember to make each day a celebration— of your well-being!