Positive Outlook Improves Quality of Life as We Get Older
Research Shows Benefits of Positive Thinking for Older Adults
To date, there has been a great deal of research examining how aging adults respond to stress and what makes them cope better. However, the results have been equivocal. Some research has demonstrated that older adults cope better with stress than younger adults, while some studies have shown they cope worse and still others have shown no difference between the two groups. New research from North Carolina State University has now demonstrated that many of these differences can be accounted for by attitude, in particular having a positive outlook. The researchers built on these finding by examining whether there were benefits tied specifically to participants attitudes about aging.
The researchers at North Carolina State examined whether older adults who viewed aging in more optimistic terms were more resilient or coped better with stress than older adults with poor outlooks toward aging. Participants were asked a series of questions such as whether they felt as useful now as they had when they when they were younger and whether they felt as happy now as when they were younger. They were also asked about stress they had experienced that day. Researchers measured the extent to which participants suffered from negative emotions such as fear, irritability, anxiety or distress and their personality style in terms of how optimistic they were.
Results showed that those participants who had more positive outlooks about aging demonstrated greater resilience when faced with stressful life circumstances. In other words, stress did not lead to significant increases in negative emotions. Those with negative outlooks showed a sharp spike in negative emotions when they were faced with stress.
Implications for Our Everyday Lives
This study demonstrated that the way we think about aging can affect how well we deal with stress as we age. This process can be viewed as being a big cycle. We are aware that stress affects our moods and physical functioning and that our moods and physical functioning effect how we cope with stress. We also know that the negative experience of stress can alter our immune system functioning and make us more susceptible to illness which further affects our moods. Yet above all this, is our outlook on life or our way of viewing and thinking about our world. Positivity and an optimistic outlook can put up a barrier to prevent stress from becoming a problem for us, perhaps it may not seem to at first but the more we practice being positive and optimistic about our life, the more effects of stress this process will block out. The way we think about our life and our world also alters how we experience physical problems and negative events and thus our moods. Learning to think more positively about things in our lives which can often entail a certain degree of acceptance while not letting acceptance provide an excuse to not live our lives to the utmost can help us experience an exceptional quality of life throughout our lifetimes.
When you feel the effects of stress, what are you most likely to do?
How to Stay Positive as We Age
- Look for the bright side of everything. This often means training ourselves to look for the good in every situation. It is easy to complain about what is not going right but harder to appreciate all that is going right. This can be especially difficult for those who have health concerns and/or are living alone. Keeping a journal can help. Make a point of writing down everything you can that is positive about your day from the small to the large. It may feel like you only have very small things to include at first like “I got a good nights sleep” or “I was able to walk to the mailbox to pick up the mail.” The more you practice this though the more you will see that is positive about your life. The next step is how to find the positive in problems situations. You may ask, “How do I find something good about my toilet overflowing?” Well perhaps it didn’t flood the whole house, it got a friend or relative to visit to see what was going on, or you had a nice conversation with the person who came out to fix it. There are always good points to take hold of even if they may seem insignificant compared to the negatives. By re-training ourselves to look at the positives eventually this will become our everyday mindset.
- Stay connected. While we all like our alone time, too much alone time can become a problem. Research has shown time and time again that social support is the strategy that is most effective at helping us cope with practically every hardship in life. Social interactions can help us feel more positively in general and better about our life no matter what age. Work to keep up with friends and relatives and find new outlets for meeting new people be it through a club or volunteer work or simply striking up a conversation with someone in the lobby of the building where you live. Keep informed of the news and developments and make sure to stay involved with your community.
- Keep your brain active. It is important to engage in activities which make our brains think. We need not only physical challenges for our bodies but also mental challenges to keep our brains fit. Keeping our minds active can help us succeed at positive aging throughout our lifetime. It doesn’t have to be something particularly hard. Even simple activities such as reading a good book, doing sudoku or crosswords puzzles, or brain teasers can help our minds stay alert. We are all experts at something so perhaps try answering questions from others on such sites as Quora, Metafliter or Yahoo Answers. Sites like these also have a social component, another benefit. Do what you love which will also help exercise your mind through activities such as reading, writing, conversation and debate.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle. You have likely heard this message a billion times during your life. Remember, though, that healthy eating, moderate sleep, weight management drinking only small amounts of alcohol and refraining smoking can help you to feel full of energy and ready to take on each new day.
- Create positive emotions for yourself. Experiencing positive emotions is good for your body, your mental health, and for how you relate to the world around you. Engage in things that will trigger positive emotions regularly and not only when you aren't feeling your best. Being optimistic and feeling good about yourself and the world around you can help you to cope with life's challenges.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. You don't have to do everything alone. Accept what you have difficulty doing and ask for help. Maybe you worry you will become a burden to others but most people enjoy the opportunity to help those they care about. Go out of your way to help others as well which will help you accept the help when you need it.
- Set goals and take control of what it takes to reach them. It is important to have goals in life and to make them happen. This means finding goals you can take complete control for and working towards achieving them. When we are in control of areas of our life we have a sense of mastery and competence which leads to further accomplishments. This provides a sense of purpose and something to continue working towards. One major aspect of positive aging is the ability to maintain control of important aspects of your life.
- Maintain regular physical activity. Physical activity help us feel better physical and mentally. While everyone’s health is different almost everyone can create some sort of physical activity program to do on a daily basis. (Make sure to check with your health care professional before engaging in any physical activity). Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. Take a break through your day and do some chair exercises, chair yoga, stretching, standing or balance exercises. Try some of the links below to get you started.
Summary and Conclusions
Everybody wants a happy life and active lifestyle. We can take control of our lives by controlling the way we think, our outlook of the future and our attitudes. This will allow us to continue to feel good physically, mentally and emotionally throughout our lifetime by decreasing negative and disruptive emotions from stress.
While people talk about decreasing and eliminating stress in their lives, stress is often something we have no control over. What we can control is how we view stressful situations and how we react to them in our thoughts and responses. The way we think effects the way we feel and the way we act, and the way we feel and act effects the way we think.
It may seem a bit foreign to some of us to practice always looking for the silver lining. The good news is that when this becomes a habit, when coupled with some of the techniques above, every component impacts every other such that over time acting on one aspect of the system leads to multiple changes and a notable improvement in quality of life though decreased negative emotionality. It just takes the decision to take the first step.
Video on Mind Body Effects of Thoughts on Seniors Coping with Stress
Chopik, W. J., Kim, E. S., & Smith, J. (2015). Changes in optimism are associated with changes in health over time among older adults. Social psychological and personality science, 6(7), 814-822.
Eisele, M., Kaduszkiewicz, H., König, H. H., Lange, C., Wiese, B., Prokein, J., & Heser, K. (2015). Determinants of health-related quality of life in older primary care patients: results of the longitudinal observational AgeCoDe Study. Br J Gen Pract, 65(640), e716-e723.
Eloranta, S., Arve, S., Isoaho, H., Lehtonen, A., & Viitanen, M. (2015). Factors connected with positive life orientation at age 70, 80, 85 and 90–The Turku Elderly Study. Scandinavian journal of caring sciences, 29(3), 537-547.