Well Being: Professor Beck at 90: Not the retiring type

Aaron Beck, father of cognitive therapy: "I'm happy with what I'm doing."
Aaron Beck, father of cognitive therapy: "I'm happy with what I'm doing." (ART CAREY / Staff)
Posted: August 08, 2011

Aaron Beck is the Joe Paterno of psychiatry. The University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus known as the father of cognitive therapy still works five days a week, training therapists, supervising researchers, conducting studies, writing scholarly papers and books. Last month, he turned 90, and he has no intention of retiring.

"It's not a concept that crosses my mind," he said, "because I'm happy with what I'm doing and there's no need to retire."

Happiness experts say that one of the keys to fulfillment and contentment is to be engaged in meaningful work. That's certainly the case with Beck, who has a full head of white hair and a benevolent face that is remarkably smooth. The other day, when I visited him at his Wynnewood home, he spoke enthusiastically about his current challenge: using cognitive therapy to help schizophrenics.

"Why did I pick schizophrenia? Because I felt I hadn't suffered enough," he quipped.

Schizophrenia is notoriously difficult to treat, and Beck is encouraged by a soon-to-be published study that he said shows cognitive therapy may improve functioning and reduce the delusions that wreak havoc with schizophrenics' lives.

For the uninitiated, cognitive therapy is based on the premise that how we think affects how we feel. Good thoughts lead to good feelings, and vice versa. The notion has a long pedigree. Epictetus: "People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them." Martha Washington: "The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances." Abraham Lincoln: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Depressed people, Beck has theorized, are in the grip of a "negative triad." They have a negative view of themselves, the world, and the future. Using evidence-based science, he has spent his career proving this truth and showing how changing the way we think can change the way we feel.

The Black Dog of Depression has never bitten him.

"I'm very fortunate. I was born with happy genes. I go under the assumption that every day the sun will come out and life will go on. One of the reasons I don't struggle is that I try to keep things in perspective. I don't get as ruffled as I might because I ask myself: Is it fatal? Is it the end of the world? Will I be permanently disabled?"

Like all of us, he has his moods, and some days are better than others. Monday is typically a "blah day," a day he reserves for routine chores. He has not been immune to the infirmities of old age. His eyesight and hearing have declined to such a degree that he can no longer play tennis or enjoy the theater. His back is bent by scoliosis, and his knees are achy, his balance wobbly.

Nevertheless, Beck describes his health as "surprisingly good," and none of these ailments has diminished his optimism and joie de vivre. Declares Beck: "90 is the new 70."

He rises at 6 and warms up his body with stretching and balance exercises. Later in the day, he rides on a stationary bike for a half hour. In the evenings, he and his wife, Phyllis, a retired Superior Court judge, watch DVDs of movies and British serials. They enjoy "an active social life with new friends a generation younger," Beck said. His favorite pastime is reading and listening to books on tape. His current literary undertaking: Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War.

Unafraid of change, he loves his iPad and iPhone and is addicted to the video game Angry Birds, which he plays while waiting for meetings to begin.

"I tell my daughter Alice that I'm probably the only 90-year-old who sends text messages," Beck said.

Death remains a remote abstraction. "If I started to think about it, I might have to give up everything," Beck said. "I don't suppress it, but I don't focus on it either."

I asked Beck, who has four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, to pretend I was his son. What wisdom would he share, what advice would he give about how to live a long, happy life?

His reply:

Keep things in perspective and recognize that they are not as bad as they seem if you get the whole picture.

Try to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Example: When Beck gave up tennis, he gained more time for other pursuits, and his weekly conversations over lunch with his former tennis partners became richer.

Don't let work get in the way of relationships. When Beck's children were in their teens, his wife admonished that he was too absorbed in his work. Soon they'll be grown and gone, she warned, and you'll regret it.

"I took it to heart," Beck said, "and now work is just one part of my life."

The weekend before his birthday, Beck, his wife, and 21 members of their family, descendants and their spouses, gathered at Skytop Lodge in the Poconos to celebrate. Seeing them all lined up for a group photo was "such a thrill," Beck said.

"I have good, close relations with every single one of them," he said proudly.


Well Being:

Aaron Beck divulges the keys to a long, happy life. A video interview: www.philly.com/wellbeing


Contact staff writer Art Carey

at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com. Read his recent "Well Being" columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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