Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Advice on how to grow old frequently comes from such banal or bloodless sources that we can be forgiven for ignoring it. Public health officials who dispense wisdom may have good intentions; pharmaceutical companies who do the same may not. In either case, the messages arrive in a form that can bring on the despair they seek to avert. Elderly people in well-lit photographs stroll down garden paths, ballroom dance, do yoga. Bulleted lists punctuated by dry citations issue gently-worded guidelines for sensible living. Inoffensive blandness as a prescription for living well.

At the other extreme are profiles of exceptional cases—relatively spry individuals who have passed the century mark. Rarely do their stories conform to the model of abstemiousness enjoined upon us by professionals. But we know that growing old with dignity entails so much more than diet and exercise or making it to a hundred-and-two. It entails facing death as squarely as we face life. We need writers with depth, sensitivity, and eloquence to deliver this message. Bertrand Russell does just that in his essay “How to Grow Old,” written when the philosopher was 81 (sixteen years before he eventually passed away, at age 97).

Russell does not flatter his readers’ rationalist conceits by citing the latest science. “As regards health,” he writes, “I have nothing useful to say…. I eat and drink whatever I like, and sleep when I cannot keep awake.” (We are inclined, perhaps, to trust him on these grounds alone.) He opens with a drily humorous paragraph in which he recommends, “choose your ancestors well,” then he issues advice on the order of not dwelling on the past or becoming a burden to your children.

But the true kernel of his short essay, “the proper recipe for remaining young,” he says, came to him from the example of a maternal grandmother, who was so absorbed in her life, “I do not believe she ever had time to notice she was growing old.” “If you have wide and keen interests and activities in which you can still be effective,” Russell writes. “you will have no reason to think about the merely statistical fact of the number of years you have already lived, still less of the probable shortness of your future.”

Such interests, he argues, should be “impersonal,” and it is this quality that loosens our grip. As Maria Popova puts it, “Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger.” The idea is familiar; in Russell’s hands it becomes a meditation on mortality as ever-timely as the so-often-quoted passages from Donne’s “Meditation XVII.” Philosopher and writer John G. Messerly calls Russell’s concluding passage “one of the most beautiful reflections on death I have found in all of world literature.”

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Read Russell’s “How to Grow Old” in full here. And see many more eloquent meditations on aging and death—from Henry Miller, André Gide, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Grace Paley—at Brain Pickings.

Related Content:  

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to People Living 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Foolish”

Bertrand Russell: The Everyday Benefit of Philosophy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncertainty

Bertrand Russell Authority and the Individual (1948) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (17) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (17)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • lisa says:

    Great testimonial ad. Thanks Josh!!! Very well targeted to a 70 year old, got me to donate!!!

  • Centauri4 says:

    This is a very gentle bit of advice and potentially useful for much younger men as well. I have heard of growing old gracefully and yet seem surrounded by more examples of people who are not, with only 2 or 3 examples, everyone else has worked hard until their bodies began failing in one way or another! This time of year (Christmas) is particularly stressful for some reason, and I am beginning to understand why!

  • P. Scott says:

    Useless. He obviously is quite secular. Secular IMO = stewpud. A guy who does not believe in God but rather….well….that we came from NOTHING….just kind of happened, wants to share his wisdom? LMAO!!! What wisdom? We all die. NO biggie for true Christians. Big big biggie for secular atheists. After all, this is their ONLY entity, their only being. What screams at me is why the hell that they would give a squat that their “work” continues. I mean, THEY’RE DEAD, GONE FOR GOOD, NEVER EVER TO RETURN (in their belief system), so WTF would they give a sh^t about their efforts enduring? Secular atheists. Talk about STEWWWWWWPUD and IRRATIONAL.

  • MW says:

    Is this a joke?

  • deborah barnes says:

    “is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life” I get this and yes is partially true but without ego and personal emotional ties, the why part gets very stale. There is an underlying old story here, full of beliefs that that we inherited via culture, formal education, experiences that are pruned, edited to fit the template we are taught to “see” etc! I suspect our ancestors did they best they could under the stories they inherited, however what is happening now can be the launch of an entirely New Story, one that aligns emotions to consciousness to what we actualize. If we are to create a better world, we need to ask deeper, wider questions. The polymaths approach might be awkward in old paradigm therefore time to change the paradigm. Consider how the microbiome connects our bodies to greater ecosystems , the relationships the interactions connect us all . The personal relationships are aspects of our environments, therefore stepping away, the aesthetics answer to separate doesn’t take quantum physics, sociology, biology, history etcinto account Looks like a run away attempt rather than a facing of and an accepting of life on life’s terms.

  • Andrew B. says:

    To imply that Christians don’t fear death is simply untrue. It is a universal human experience, regardless of any religion or philosophy. If the idea of an afterlife–as taught to you through your own readings, traditions and consultations–soothes you, I suppose you can take comfort in that. However, if your afterlife is limited only to the souls of white western “Christians,” it seems rather narrow given the context of human history, cultures, beliefs and experiences. In that sense, you’ve completely missed the author’s point.

  • M.Z. says:

    This message would be useless to the psychically oppressed. Altruism and wishing well for humanity occurs innately. One’s morals do not come naturally from a book, let alone yours. We moved past that during the European enlightenment centuries ago. The style of your comment is good evidence to support who is really “STEWWWWWWPUD and IRRATIONAL”; you, or Bertrand Russell? Reality does not care about the imaginary, completely subjective system of beliefs all humans can hold. I feel sorry for you and anyone who you influence in this world.

  • A says:

    Good morning – You’re entitled to your opinion. However, you’d have more chance of being taken seriously if you tempered your message to be inclusive rather than abrasive or exhibited any command of the historical impact of religion on the advancement of knowledge and society.

  • PD says:

    Billy Graham, the man that marched millions up the stair case of heaven was afraid of dying. He CLUNG to every breath and took advantage of every medical intervention to keep him alive. Hmmm……

  • Y. Gach says:

    Sometime around 1995 a friend and I were in a small country store in Newfane Vermont.
    We were talking to Earl, the crusty old proprietor who, after many years of smoking, carried an oxygen tank around with him. In through the door came John Kenneth Gailbraith, the famous Harvard economist, who owned a second home in nearby Jamaica.

    How you doin’ Earl? said Gailbraith.
    “I’m getting there” said Earl “and you John?”

    “I’m aging gracefully Earl” said Gailbraith (who at the time was just shy of 90).

    Will never forget that scene.

  • Greg Shore says:

    “Useless” for YOU as a hard core “believer”.
    So why not just shut up and live your life as you see fit.
    Your junk response serves nobody; at least Russell’s musings (they are not marching orders) may resonate with some of the folks who do not conform to your narrow reality.
    Sad for you… enjoy your afterlife – clearly this life is a struggle for you.

  • Margaret says:

    There is nothing more that I can say then what has already been said. I just wanted to express my compliments to the people who intelligently responded to the unintelligent poster. It gives me hope that the entire country is not stupid, so thank you all for that!

  • Pantagruel31 says:

    There is, however, the idea of having lived for one’s values and thus to make the world better (as we define it introspectively — rather than appealing to the authority of a supposedly divinely-inspired collection of writings).

    Albert Camus’ _The Myth of Sisyphus_ and Sartre’s writings also deal with meaning/purpose which address the relevance of our human actions (and — like Bertrand Russell — they were atheist as well).

  • Bill W. says:

    So he was human, then? The truth is, not that Graham has anything to do with this article, is that God kept Billy around for as long as he did, to continue his Christ-centered good-works for as long as possible. Graham saved thousands of people from an eternity in Hell, even on his deathbed. His reward? A few extra years from God, with his family, before he earned his final reward of an eternity in Heaven with Christ. How oh-so-terrible.

  • Chris says:

    Unfortunately, I would imagine not.

  • J. Hardtime says:

    Any individual, who at this time in history–with all of its discoveries–still believes in Bronze Age myths, well, you’re kind of becoming a minority. That’s all right though. We can chalk your comment up as a death rattle of that mode of thought. Hmmm… Rational thought and philosophy, as opposed to Bronze Age invisible-man-in-the-sky stories told to you when your wee mind is still Santa eligible, I’m going to have to go with rational thought and philosophy.

    Besides, your rant up there, calling people stupid, Jesus would not be proud. Keep rattling that Christian Death Rattle, though. If anything, it is mildly entertaining watching someone clutch to a belief system out of ignorance and fear. Have a quality life!

  • Robert says:

    Heaven is on earth.
    Heaven is in your heart and your mind.
    Enough with labels.
    Find peace within yourself hope your family the best you can. And don’t expect forgiveness from negative people in your life.
    It’s not up to Jesus or God or anyone else to make it right.
    Find your space, sooth your demons,
    Make your peace spread the love.
    And lose anyone who sucks the life out of you including family.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.