Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in The Gerontologist (2014), 9 pp.; doi: 10.1093/geront/gnu054


Copyright © 2014 Nora M. Peterson and Peter Martin. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America. Used by permission.


Purpose of the Study: This paper addresses the debate about the use of the term “successful aging” from a humanistic, rather than behavioral, perspective. It attempts to uncover what success, a term frequently associated with aging, is: how can it be defined and when did it first come into use? In this paper, we draw from a number of humanistic perspectives, including the historical and linguistic, in order to explore the evolution of the term “success.” We believe that words and concepts have deep implications for how concepts (such as aging) are culturally and historically perceived.

Design and Methods: We take a comparative approach, turning to the etymological roots of this term in British, French, and German literature. According to the earliest entries of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, events can have good or bad success. Another definition marks success as outcome oriented.

Results: Often used in the context of war, religion, and medicine, the neutral, but often negative, use of “success” in literature of the Renaissance demonstrates the tensions that surround the word, and suggests that success is something to be approached carefully.

Implications: Ignoring the ambiguous origins of success erases the fact that aging in earlier centuries echoes much of the same ambivalence with which many people discuss it today. Attending to the origins of success can help gerontologists understand the humanistic tradition behind their inquiry into what successful aging means today.