Long Reads

Beautiful portraits of centenarians show what joy looks like around the world

In need of an instant happiness boost? These touching images are guaranteed to make you smile.

As human beings, we can create a mind-boggling 16,384 facial expressions.

And, rather brilliantly, researchers have discovered that we can create more expressions for joy than any other type of emotion (so we hope you’re all smiling while you’re reading this).

In a recent study, scientists at Ohio State University analysed 7.2 million images of facial expressions and found just 35 facial expressions that are universal across all cultures in the world, including expressions for fear, surprise, sadness and anger. But by far the most universally expressed emotion was joy, with over half of the 35 facial expressions being used to convey happiness.

So what does happiness look like across the world? Below, you can find a series of joyful images from photographer Karsten Thormaehlen’s beautiful photobook, Aging Gracefully.

The German photographer travelled across the world to meet women and men over the age of 100, capturing touching images of centenarians living – and thriving – in every corner of the globe, from Japan to New York and Munich.

In need of an instant happiness boost? Simply scroll down to see the images and read the women’s stories – we guarantee they will make you smile.

“I have nothing to complain about, or any regrets”: Kiyo Aragai, 104

Born September 10, 1914, in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan.

Kiyo says she had a free, idyllic childhood and a wonderful marriage “full of happiness and without any arguments.” She has her husband to thank for the fact that she has become such a good cook, “thanks to his wonderful sense of taste and his weakness for good food.” The couple traveled a lot, including to places abroad like Hawaii. She says she does not really have anything to complain about, nor does she have any regrets. She is at peace with herself.

“My advice to young people: never go to extremes!”: María Teresa Bolivar Vda De Lercari, 105

Born July 4, 1913, in Lima, Peru.

Longevity runs in the family. María’s Chilean-born mother lived to be 104. If you ask María what’s allowed her to live this long, she says it is above all her positive attitude toward life and a daily glass of red wine — Italian, of course. María has a weakness for Southern European pleasures, including ravioli. It’s no wonder — she had a long and happy 39-year marriage to Michele Lercari, a man of Italian descent. She traveled often with him to Europe and visited her favorite cities, Paris and Rome. Although he has been dead for 35 years now, she still misses him every day. But María also says she still has a wonderful life. Today she likes to go for walks with her 80-year-old sister, Consuelo, and enjoys cooking. Her advice to young people: “Never go to extremes!”

“The secret to marriage? Listening!”: Betty Markoff, 102

Born August 26, 1916, in Toronto, Canada.

The secret to Betty’s long marriage to Morrie? Listening! And they have listened to each other for a long time — nearly 80 years. Betty first met her future husband at her cousin’s wedding in New York in 1938. Her friends tried as hard as they could to dissuade her from getting involved with the attractive Morrie. Fortunately she didn’t listen and by the end of the year they were married. Like her husband, Betty likes to watch people. She has had ample opportunity to do so since the two of them moved to LA’s Bunker Hill, a lively hipster district. The neighborhood is just as worth seeing as the view of the skyline from their spacious apartment.

“I was one of the first African American women to join the U.S. Army”: Olivia Hooker, 103

Born February 12, 1915, in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

When Dr. Olivia Hooker was six years old, members of the Ku Klux Klan ransacked her home during the 1921 Tulsa race riot. “I still don’t know why they bothered to burn up a little girl’s doll clothes, but they did,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “And that’s what made me very, very afraid. That was a startling thing for a child. It took a while to get over.” 

Decades later, Hooker joined the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and was among survivors who filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit seeking reparations. In the Forties she was one of the first African American women to join the U.S. Army. In 1961 she earned her PhD in psychology from the University of Rochester and worked for a long time with women with learning disabilities. The walls in her tiny house in White Plains, in upstate New York, are plastered with diplomas and greeting cards addressed to her — from the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Obamas.

“One is always too young for old fashion”: Paula Klambauer, 106

Born April 19, 1912, in Wels, Austria.

Paula is very trim and barely looks a day past 85 at the most. Trained as a tailor, she has a great appreciation for clothes. Following her own motto, “One is always too young for old fashion,” she dresses in the trends for 60-year-olds. “I don’t like fashion for 70-, 80-, and 90-year-olds.” She has her stepfather, a boilermaker, to thank for the fact that she learned any trade at all, which was unusual for the girls of her generation. She married in 1939 and gave birth to her daughter, Ingrid, in 1940 and her son, Karl-Heinz, in 1944. She had to raise her children alone during the entire war. Her husband did not return until 1947, injured in body and spirit. After that, she sewed only at home and became a house-wife. “I earned it,” she says, laughing.

“I have three children, eight grandchildren, fourteen great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren”: Evelyn Zehring, 104

Born September 21, 1914, in Fairfield, Montana. 

Evelyn strongly believes that God has a good reason for her “still being around! I’m praying that I will be ready for whatever He has planned for me.” For the moment, those plans include living in a Baptist residence that was founded in 1914, the same year she was born. Evelyn gives weekly Bible classes there and plays music on the piano to accompany the church service. She does this in the spirit of her husband, Guy Raymond Zehring, a Baptist priest, who made her a widow back in 1968. During his life, her husband’s work as a priest took them wherever he was called to serve — Washington, Oregon, Ohio. She has three children, eight grandchildren, fourteen great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. When she’s not giving Bible classes or playing the piano, she meets her friends to play dominos — one of her favorite pastimes. 

“I live in Ōgimi, the so-called Village of Longevity”: Miyagui Kami, 102

Born August 25, 1916, in Ōgimi, Japan.

Miyagui loves her weekly visits to the senior center in her village, Ōgimi, the so-called “Village of Longevity” in northern Okinawa. She gets a health check and has her blood pressure measured, then she joins the group for gymnastics and singing. Like most people here, Miyagui spent her earlier days farming, out under the open skies all year long. Today she gets pleasure from working in her garden and her house, gambling with her friends, taking tea breaks, and visiting with her great-grandchildren.

“I still live in the same apartment where I was born”: Gisele Casadesus, 104

Born June 14, 1914, in Paris, France.

Gisèle still has the enchanting look of a young girl when she rubs her eyes in astonishment and disbelief at how quickly 100 years have flown by. It’s no surprise time passed so rapidly with her full schedule. The French movie star acted in her first role in 1944 and became quite well known in the Seventies. Once things grew a bit quieter for the actress, who still lives in the same apartment where she was born, she was rediscovered at the tender age of 96 with the international success of My Afternoons with Margueritte, in which she starred opposite Gérard Depardieu. Gisèle is currently filming again and writing a book about her life in Paris. Artistry must be in her genes: Her father was a composer, her oldest son is an internationally renowned conductor, her daughter is a singer and actress, and her grandson is a successful photographer and documentary filmmaker.

“It’s important to be altruistic and helpful to others”: Kimiyo Sato, 106

Born October 28, 1912, in Nagasaki, Japan.

Kimiyo has a weakness for cars made in Germany. She got her driver’s license when she was 50 years old and drove her red Mercedes until she was 94. She raised six daughters, but tragically her twins died in a gas-explosion accident at the age of 15. She has eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Kimiyo’s daily schedule is packed: Breakfast at 8 a.m., shopping, senior center activities, painting classes, and, of course, Sunday mass. She is faithful and begins her days by praying, and she prays three times before any meal. “Praying, and being altruistic and helpful to others, is most important,” she says.

“Hard work enhanced my longevity”: Luz Pacifica Torres, 102

Born November 23, 1916, in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Luz is Timoteo’s sister-in-law. Her husband, Victor, who died in 2010, was his brother. The family used to run a farming operation together. It was hard work — which, according to Luz, enhanced her longevity. But maybe the secret also lies in the mysterious ishpingo, brewed with Punta — the schnapps that Timoteo distills himself. Ishpingo is Luz’s cure-all for the few maladies that sometimes befall her. 

Luz has six daughters and two sons. She is not quite sure how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren she has. There must be between 30 and 40 — a number that even younger people would lose track of. At least her progeny has been properly registered with the authorities — unlike Luz, who officially does not even exist. The path up the mountain to her wooden hut is so drastically steep that not a single civil servant has ever taken it upon himself to issue her an official ID card.

Aging Gracefully: Portraits of People Over 100 by Karsten Thormaehlen (Chronicle Books, £19.99)

All images: ©Karsten Thormaehlen

These photos were originally published on stylist.co.uk in February 2017


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