Attitudes have been shown to have a profound effect on our lives, and two are essential for late life well-being: healthy defiance and optimism. Working free of the pervasive but mistaken idea that aging is an inevitable slide into misery (healthy defiance) and focusing on what is possible, rather than on what has been lost (optimism), both enhance emotional well-being and increase the likelihood that we will engage in behaviors that promote healthy aging, such as exercising regularly and maintaining nourishing relationships with other people.

Healthy Defiance

In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. In The MindBody Code, he writes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

Senior Farmer with Thumbs Up

An essential first step toward healthy defiance is staying alert to ageist comments and questioning them, whether they come through others or from within ourselves. The air is thick with offhand remarks about how awful getting older is: “That’s age for you,” “I hate getting old,” and “It’s only going to get worse.” A simple heartfelt statement, such as, “I’m finding that a lot of things get better with age,” can move the conversation in a more age-friendly direction. Over time, gently challenging mistaken assumptions about age can help wear down ageist attitudes and stereotypes.

Being aware of our own age-unfriendly attitudes is especially important. For example, many of us terrorize ourselves with the fear of dementia whenever we (temporarily) forget a name, a word, or the reason we walked into a particular room. Statistically, it is far more likely that we are not paying attention, are under stress, or are getting insufficient sleep. Severe dementia, like debilitating frailty, is the exception, not the rule; the majority of older adults do not experience them.

In “Images Versus Experience of the Aging Body” social gerontologist Peter Öberg points out, “The problems usually ascribed to old age . . . do not correspond to old people’s own experiences . . . The [gerontology] field has been dominated by a ‘misery perspective’ focusing on ‘problems of aging.’ However, we know that it is only a minority of older people who experience these difficulties.”

Healthy defiance of inaccurate and limiting attitudes toward aging is vital because a loss-focused view of aging typically goes hand in hand with unhealthy practices like overeating and a lack of exercise. A 2016 (TILDA) study at Trinity College, Dublin, revealed that “if negative attitudes towards ageing are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health.” And in their 2002 study at Yale University, Becca Levy and Martin Slade found that internalizing negative stereotypes of age can reduce life expectancy by more than seven and a half years.

Happy Retirement Group

Optimism

Numerous studies have demonstrated that optimism tends to increase in later life. The reasons for the link between aging and optimism are not fully understood, but regardless of the mechanism, an optimistic outlook – about aging in particular and about life in general – contributes to late life thriving. An optimistic attitude toward aging entails focusing on what is possible (now what?), rather than on what has been lost.

In her extensive study of the long-lived Abkhasian people, anthropologist Sula Benet  notes, “Abkhasians are a life-loving, optimistic people . . . [They] expect a long and useful life and look forward to old age.” Quoting an optimistic and vibrant ninety-nine-year-old man from the village of Achandara, she writes, “It isn’t time to die yet. I am needed by my children and grandchildren, and it isn’t bad in this world—except that . . . it has become difficult to climb trees.”

Other researchers have found that a positive view of one’s own aging is associated with improved social networks (Menkin et al, 2016), better cognitive and physical health (Levy, 2003) and higher levels of subjective well-being (Steverink et al, 2001). Best of all, positive psychology, cognitive / behavioral therapy, narrative psychology, and neuroscience all suggest that it is possible to change our mindset by becoming aware of undermining attitudes and beliefs, seeking evidence of a more positive (and accurate) “counter story,” and actively working to “sculpt” our brain in a more life-enhancing direction.

This is the essence of healthy defiance coupled with optimism: question limiting and negative assumptions about age, seek accurate heartening counter-evidence, and frequently “marinate” your brain in age-friendly imagery. For some excellent tools, based in neuroscience and contemplative traditions, see Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius’s Buddha’s Brain and Mario Martinez’s The Mind/Body Code.

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