Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Attitudes During Retirement Years Make A Difference

June 9, 2007

What is the difference between people who thrive during their retirement years and those who don’t? Certainly, having a life filled with purpose, meaningful goals, good health, a measure of financial security, service to others and rewarding companionship of family and friends are key components of happiness.

But there other important qualities that contribute to contentment and happiness while aging. These qualities are: 1) being emotionally even-keeled and resilient under conditions of adversity, 2) being able to rely on spiritual understanding to keep adversity in perspective, and 3) having an ability to live and enjoy life in the present. These qualities don’t magically click on in old age but are the products of a lifelong pattern of living and coping.

Managing emotions during adversity. People who do well with adversity have had difficult life experiences, failure, or trauma earlier in life that prepared them for the bumps and setbacks of aging. Medical terminology would label it stress inoculation.

Just experiencing negative events isn’t sufficient to inoculate people. Negative events happen to everyone. It is the ability to process the event, grieve it, extract meaning from it and having the will to move on that makes the difference between growth and living with trauma. Negative events need to be worked through, not walled off and denied nor should they be experienced as triggers for inflicting fresh wounds.

A major loss in life buffers future losses because living with a mixture of sadness and happiness helps people regulate their emotions. Life does go on and people who have been through hard trials know that. Instead of being fixated on negative experiences, resilient people bounce back more quickly into a positive frame of mind.

People who age well keep their negative emotions, especially fear and anxiety, under control when confronted by stress and adversity. They aren’t as reactive. They recast their experiences in the prism of their past and what emerges is less threatening and can be assimilated. Adversity elicits a shrug instead a howl of protest or surrender to pain or despair.

Being positive even extends to whether people pay attention to positive or negative information. It seems that older people who age well know what to overlook and attend to that which is uplifting.

Spiritual perspective. Another reason why people show equanimity in the presence of uncertainty and disappointment is their religious faith. A spiritual framework in understanding life gives meaning to events and hope for the future.

There is a Divine love that shelters and comforts us. We matter. Our lives matter. Our struggles have meaning. A spiritual perspective puts disappointment, failure, hardship and suffering into a larger context of life that extends beyond mortality.

The way people look at time makes a difference. E.M. Forster noted, "The people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society were eternal. Both assumptions must be accepted if we allow a few breathing holes for the human spirit." Disappointments are swallowed up in the immenseness of eternity.

Being in the moment. Aging can help keep a focus on staying positive based on a sense of time. As time horizons shorten, wise people narrow their focus on emotionally meaningful goals, live more in tune with feelings, and become more selective with whom they spend time. Choices are made with urgency.

Theologian Martin Marty makes a similar point on how a sense of eternity makes the "here and now" important. "...It takes a sense of eternity to make one realize that there is time, time to be available and to create." Or as in an Algerian proverb, "Live as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow."

Time eventually runs out. With this awareness of the finiteness of time, we can savor the day-to-day experiences. Appreciating the fragility of life helps to savor it as it happens.

Losing oneself in service is to lose oneself in the moment. Time spent in the service of others is a shedding of the preoccupation of self and cultivating a generosity of time and resources to others in need. People who age well put their investments in people and relationships while possessions and ego recede into meaningless pursuits.

Attitudes contribute to long life. A research study conducted by Becca Levy from Yale University in collaboration with the Ohio Longitudinal Study has shown that positivity during older age lengthens a life span by seven and half years.

Laura Carstensen and her colleagues at Stanford University have data from their study indicating that older people on average are more even-keeled and resilient emotionally than young people who tend to be either up or down. Even more provocative was the preliminary finding that people who didn’t regulate their emotions well as adults and were more negative at the start of the study were more likely to be dead 10 years later, regardless of their health status at the beginning of the study.