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In mid-July, FaceApp took the world by storm. Millions of people downloaded the app to their smartphones and posted “aged” pictures of themselves online. The FaceApp Challenge went viral.  Celebrities from Kim Kardashian to the staff of the Today Show posted “aged” photos of themselves 30 years older. The app has a variety of filters to make us look older or younger, whiten our smile, change hairstyles or make us prettier -- but it was the aging filter that drew the most attention. What is the fascination with our future self? What does it say about us and our society and our attitudes about aging?

On one level, it could be attributed to our obsession with appearances. A recent survey conducted by OnePoll for Groupon estimated the average American spends between $175,000 and $225,000 on health and beauty products in his or her lifetime. FaceApp gave a glimpse of what one would look like without those products to color our hair, whiten our teeth or hide our blemishes. A friend’s Facebook posting of her “aged” self included a comment about buying more turtleneck sweaters as she grew older! 

On a deeper level, FaceApp also touched on our fear of aging and our mortality. Many people fear aging and the potential loss of our memory, our health and our loved ones. Using FaceApp was a bit like watching a scary movie. What will happen to us next? 

I asked Jessica Bibbo, a research scientist here at Benjamin Rose about it. She directed me to Erik Erikson’s Stages of Life and his theory of healthy personality development across the lifespan. Part of growing into adulthood and middle age is the experience of love and loss, success and failure. The tension between fulfillment and despair is natural and “sources of growth, strength and commitment.”   Our fascination with aging, with thinking about what will happen next, is a natural part of our development throughout our lives. We share the need to create, contribute and be a part of the community.  

Jessica also suggested that there is an element of optimism in using FaceApp. Imagining ourselves at 70, 80 or 90 means that we can see ourselves being here into our 90s. And, while we may fear the impact of time on our minds and our bodies, there is evidence that aging and misery do not go hand in hand. 

Surveys of older adults show that people are generally happier as they age. A Pew Research study compared responses of younger adults on difficulties they feared as they grew older, to the responses of older people on those same topics, ranging from fear of illness, lack of money, loneliness or “becoming a burden.” Older adults were far less likely to experience the challenges feared by their younger counterparts. Older people were also less likely to be troubled by these events when they did occur.  More than half of all retirees report feeling younger than their age. For a perspective of aging from the “oldest old”, read John Leland’s book, Happiness is a Choice You Make.  

Then what is the lesson from FaceApp? Ultimately, it is important to remember that the appearance of growing older is not the same as the experience of growing older. And that experience is “… a privilege denied to many.” Enjoy the journey.