As increasingly more people experience old age as a time of growth and productivity, theoretical attention to successful ageing is needed. In this paper, we overview historical, societal and philosophical evidence for a deep, long-standing ambivalence about human ageing that has influenced even scientific views of old age. In recent years, however, discussion of the psychological and behavioural processes people use to maintain and reach new goals in late life has gained momentum. We contribute to this discussion the metamodel of selective optimisation with compensation, developed by Baltes and Baltes. The model is a metamodel that attempts to represent scientific knowledge about the nature of development and ageing with the focus on successful adaptation. The model takes gains and losses jointly into account, pays attention to the great heterogeneity in ageing and successful ageing, and views successful mastery of goals in the face of losses endemic to advanced age as the result of the interplay of the three processes, selection, compensation, and optimisation. We review evidence from the biological and social science literatures for each component and discuss new research avenues to study the interaction of the three processes.