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“The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are”

For The Atlantic, Jennifer Senior writes about how and why people’s subjective age — the age you are in your head — differs from their actual age.

But “How old do you feel?” is an altogether different question from “How old are you in your head?” The most inspired paper I read about subjective age, from 2006, asked this of its 1,470 participants — in a Danish population (Denmark being the kind of place where studies like these would happen)-and what the two authors discovered is that adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, about 20 percent younger than their actual age. “We ran this thing, and the data were gorgeous,” says David C. Rubin (75 in real life, 60 in his head), one of the paper’s authors and a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University. “It was just all these beautiful, smooth curves.”

Why we’re possessed of this urge to subtract is another matter. Rubin and his co-author, Dorthe Berntsen, didn’t make it the focus of this particular paper, and the researchers who do often propose a crude, predictable answer-namely, that lots of people consider aging a catastrophe, which, while true, seems to tell only a fraction of the story. You could just as well make a different case: that viewing yourself as younger is a form of optimism, rather than denialism. It says that you envision many generative years ahead of you, that you will not be written off, that your future is not one long, dreary corridor of locked doors.

I am not entirely sure I can even answer the question of “How old are you in your head?” I’ve always had trouble even remembering how old I actually am and don’t really think about it all that much. Maybe that’s changed a bit in recent years, as milestone anniversaries pass and the ol’ body breaks down. When pressed, I used to tell people I’ve always felt like I was 30 years old, even when I was 12. As a kid attending mixed-age gatherings, I often sheered clear of hanging out with kids my age — I preferred the adults. Here’s Senior again:

Of course, not everyone I spoke with viewed themselves as younger. There were a few old souls, something I would have once said about myself. I felt 40 at 10, when the gossip and cliquishness of other little girls seemed not just cruel but dull; I felt 40 at 22, when I barely went to bars; I felt 40 at 25, when I started accumulating noncollege friends and realized I was partial to older people’s company. And when I turned 40, I was genuinely relieved, as if I’d finally achieved some kind of cosmic internal-external temporal alignment.

And as a 40-something, my curiosity has kept me interested — I would even say aspirationally interested — in what the younger generations are up to. Anyway, back to the original question: fine, twist my arm, I’m 35 in my head.

A perhaps related digression: I don’t know if I’ve written about this before, but despite being smack in the middle of the Gen X age range, I’ve always felt more culturally like a Millennial. My guess is that as an internet early adopter, I experienced being Extremely Online right around the same time as many Millennials did as teens and preteens. I’d be interested to hear how other folks who were very active in online culture as adults in the mid-to-late 90s feel about this.

See also Meet the Perennials, Up With Grups, and How to Age Gracefully.