As we advance in years, it’s easy to feel less optimistic and more overwhelmed and discouraged by the changes that come with aging. Health and mobility issues can put limitations on what we can do, or we may find ourselves in demanding care-taker roles for our partners or parents. Finances might be stretched thinner than we’d planned going into retirement. And the list goes on.
When you’re hit with a series of age-related challenges, it can be easy to develop a cynical or pessimistic outlook. We may tell ourselves we’re just mentally preparing for the next setback, but this kind of negative outlook can have very real consequences. In fact, according to a recent study, a pessimistic outlook about aging results in a much higher risk of developing dementia. This same research suggests that a positive outlook, on the other hand, can turn off the influence of certain genes that make dementia more likely.
Maintaining an optimistic outlook as we age can also promote improvements in overall health, as well as help us navigate challenges with greater ease and resilience. Optimistic people believe that positive outcomes are possible, so they are more likely to put in the time and effort to problem solve and be proactive about their challenges.
Optimism isn’t about telling yourself that everything is great (when it isn’t) and refusing to look at anything that might be considered negative. Optimism simply means approaching situations with a flexible and adaptive mindset. Click To Tweet
But keep in mind, optimism isn’t about telling yourself that everything is great (when it isn’t) and refusing to look at anything that might be considered negative. Optimism simply means approaching situations with a flexible and adaptive mindset.
Tips for Cultivating Realistic Optimism
Here are four ways I’ve found to strike a balance between optimism and realism, without resorting to a fantasy or getting bogged down in a pessimistic outlook. When I can find meaning and purpose while accepting my limitations, I find myself much more willing to engage with challenging realities in a constructive way.
1. Find meaning.
Experiences I find meaningful generally touch on significance, connection and growth. Often all three at once. To look for meaning in your own experiences, consider:
Significance: What makes an experience feel important or significant to you? What experiences align with your values, beliefs or goals? What things resonate with you deeply?
Connection: Meaningful experiences often involve a sense of connection with other people, animals, nature or even a higher power. This connection can bring a sense of belonging and meaning to your life. Consider the connections you find most meaningful and consider ways to strengthen them.
Growth: Meaningful experiences can also involve personal growth and development. This could be overcoming a challenge, learning something new, or expanding your perspective and understanding of the world. For me, reading checks this box. I love to read and learn about a variety of different subjects. I’m particularly drawn to new ideas and information about health and well-being.
2. Find purpose.
Finding purpose and fulfillment are a lifelong journey, and it’s never too late to start or continue farther along that road. Here are some tips:
Reflect on your values: Values are the things that matter most to you in life, such as family, health, spirituality, creativity and community. Reflecting on your values can help you identify what is truly important to you and guide you towards a purpose that aligns with those values.
Consider your life experiences: Your life experiences, both positive and negative, can provide clues to your purpose in life. Consider what you have enjoyed doing throughout your life, what challenges you have overcome and what lessons you have learned along the way.
Experiment with new approaches: Trying out new things can help you discover new interests and passions that can lead to a sense of purpose. Consider volunteering, taking classes, or joining a social group to explore new hobbies and meet new people.
3. Accept limitations with dignity and grace.
Overall, I’ve found that accepting limitations while maintaining optimism requires a shift in mindset. These tools can help:
Focus on your abilities: Instead of dwelling on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do. For example, if running is more than your aging joints can bear, this doesn’t mean you can’t exercise. Simply trade it in for walking or swimming instead. This voluntary shift in focus can help you feel more positive and empowered.
Engage in meaningful activities: Within your current abilities, what activities bring you the most enjoyment? How can you invest your time and energy in a way that leaves you feeling fulfilled? That hour you spend watching the least obnoxious thing on TV could be invested in reading a great book, picking up a new hobby or taking an online class on a topic that really interests you.
Embrace change: Change is a natural part of life and accepting it is a big part of maintaining a positive outlook as you age. Instead of resisting change, try embracing it. Look for opportunities for personal growth and inner development.
4. Practice gratitude.
Focusing on what you appreciate can shift your perspective towards the positive and help you recognize value and purpose in your life. To engage with the practice of gratitude at a deeper, more meaningful level, I suggest starting with what I call the Practice.
The Practice: Before reflecting on what you appreciate, take a few minutes to calm your emotions and quiet your mind. Sit quietly and bring attention to your posture. Notice where you’re holding stress. Then focus on your breath. On in the inhale let your shoulders be relaxed. On the exhale, let your shoulders slide down your back. Maintain your focus on breathing and releasing muscular tension for as long as you wish. The Practice will help you to be more fully present and aware.
Reflect on why you feel grateful: Instead of just listing things you appreciate, take some time to reflect on why you appreciate them. What specific qualities or experiences make you feel grateful? This will help you connect with the deeper meaning behind the things you appreciate in life.
Express your appreciation: When I have something positive to say, I try not to hold it back. It might be a simple but sincere expression of gratitude to a shop clerk for their help. Or you can write a letter to someone, thanking them for the positive impact they have had on your life. This will deepen your sense of gratitude and help you cultivate more meaningful relationships.
Practice gratitude in difficult situations: Take a moment to find something positive in a challenging situation and focus on it. (If nothing else, focus on how the experience is helping you grow.) This will develop your resilience and a more positive outlook.
Make gratitude a daily practice: Take a few minutes each morning or evening to reflect on what you appreciate. Over time, this will help you to develop a more optimistic mindset.
The goal of a gratitude practice is not just to feel good in the moment. Cultivating a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in your life will make gratitude a more transformative experience.
The reality is that as we age, our capacity for finding purpose and meaning in our challenges can make all the difference between struggling against reality and accepting our limitations with dignity and grace. When we keep our focus on what we appreciate, including our experience and wisdom, we can embrace age-related changes and cultivate the optimism that will ultimately help us adapt to them.
If you’re not sure where you fall on optimism-pessimism spectrum, take this quiz to help you with personal reflection.
Take good care : )