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You Can Choose a Positive Attitude

Make it a habit and boost your happiness

Illustration of two people choosing a positive attitude from a wheel of moods.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

No one says, “I can hardly wait until I am 80.” In the United States, we dread growing old. We’re irked about each new gray hair or small wrinkle. Concerns about memory loss, financial stability, the death of loved ones, diminishing independence, and declining health weigh heavily on our minds.

I had a negative attitude about aging from my earliest years. Both my father and mother died relatively young — my mother at 65 and my father at 71. One of my grandfathers had a stroke at 55 and spent his last ten years in bed and one grandmother broke her hip when she was 71 and never walked again.

During my seventies, I was healthy, still working, and enjoying my life. However, as I turned eighty, I went into a bit of a funk. I started thinking, “Now I really am old and I don’t know how to do this well.” I decided to interview a number of diverse people in their eighties to see what I could learn from them about aging well. These interviews led to my book Eightysomethings.

I was stunned by what I heard. Most people I spoke with were happy, unexpectedly happy. My findings were consistent with the research of other social scientists. People in their 80s are generally happier than those in their 70s, and people in their 70s report higher levels of happiness than those in their 60s and 50s.

While conducting my interviews, I learned about the research of Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale. Levy reported that those people with a positive attitude about aging live 7.6 years longer than those with a negative attitude. Amazing!

Illustration of a woman carrying several balloons, each balloon has a different face representing the many attitudes she can choose.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

Levy’s groundbreaking discovery stemmed from a longitudinal study conducted in Oxford, Ohio, where social scientists had been gathering data about the lives and perspectives of the residents for years. When Levy joined the project, she had just returned from Japan where life expectancy exceeded that of the United States. Levy’s understanding of Japanese culture led her to suspect that Japanese reverential attitude towards older people were a significant factor contributing to their longer lives. The data from Oxford demonstrated that a positive outlook about aging had a greater influence on lifespan than gender, race, socioeconomic status, loneliness, or health. This difference in longevity persists, with average life expectancy at 79 in the US and 84 in Japan.

As I interviewed more people in their eighties, my own attitude about aging became more positive. My interviews with Patty and Martha were aha moments.

Patty’s Story — A Positive Attitude Despite Losses and Problems

As I met for coffee with Patty she told me, “I love being in my eighties. I love spring and gardening; no pressure to get things done. If I don’t get things done, it’s okay. My life is all easy and pleasant.” Patty went through through a divorce many years ago, and more recently her daughter was tragically murdered. Earlier this year her beloved daughter-in-law died, and now her son is miserable being alone. Patty has financial problems. Lately, she has experienced several episodes of passing out unexpectedly and has gone to the emergency room.

Illustration of woman enjoying her garden full of spring flowers.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

Patty’s story was filled with major losses and problems, yet her attitude was surprisingly positive. She made it clear to me that having a positive outlook does not depend on having avoided tragedy, failures, losses, and challenges. By age 70, we all experience changes in our bodies and have lost some of our friends and loved ones. We begin to understand that we will not live forever. It appears that when we experience many losses, our sense of gratitude for what we have actually increases. This complicated truth has been called the paradox of aging.

Martha’s Story — It’s All About Your Choices

When Martha retired at 68, she was free of obligations and duties for the first time in years. She realized she now had many options to consider from going on a spur-of-the-moment walk with a friend to taking a trip to Alaska. Martha explained, “I know I don’t have to go down a negative path. Even when my brother was dying and when the kids had problems, I could stay positive. Choosing a positive attitude is something that I learned to do. Even when things are bad, I can stop myself and say, ‘The sun is out today.’”

Illustration of person holding different emoticon faces representing different moods they can choose from.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

Martha shows us a way to choose our attitude. It is about recognizing the options available to us and making deliberate, conscious choices day after day. We can always choose to stop ourselves when we are stuck in a negative space ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. We can turn our attention to what we are currently experiencing whether it is the warmth of the sun or the sound of birds chirping. Phrases like being in the here and now and staying in the present moment may sound like clichés, but they are also a pathway to happiness.

As I have aged, turning seventy, then eighty, and now almost ninety, it has become easier for me to live in the present moment than when I was younger. I want to enjoy whatever time I have left and don’t want to waste time fretting. And as I look around at my friends and acquaintances, I realize it’s not just me that feels this way. My cohort has mellowed. We say to each other, over and over, “It is good to be alive. We are so lucky. Life is good.”

Illustration of a man pausing to meditate in the present and calm his mind.
Image designed by © Antonio Rodriguez on AdobeStock

What works for me — How I choose a positive attitude day-to-day.

When I find myself stuck in a negative place, I deliberately pause. I then often turn my attention to my breath and say, “Breathing in. Breathing out.” I do this for a minute or two. Sometimes I say, “And all shall be well. And all shall be well.” Finally, and most importantly, I say, “I am choosing now, just for this moment, to have a positive attitude.”

This gets easier with practice until it becomes a habit.


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2 comentários

Samantha White
Samantha White
23 de jun.

Thank you, Katharine, for keeping this dialogue going. I'm 86, and happy to be this age, grateful for every day. 99% of people born in 1938 have died, but I'm still here. I've lost my parents (of course), my only sibling and some best friends. My daughter was killed when she was 20 (I was 50 and alone after a divorce I didn't want). I've lost several homes and was even homeless for a while. I can no longer stand or walk unaided, and I have myriad other health problems. My husband is dying. But I've never been more grateful to be alive, to have the privilege of taking care of him, and to have this roof over our heads…

Katharine Esty
Katharine Esty
2 days ago
Respondendo a

Yes, all of us that have lived these long lives are lucky. And for many of us there is much to look forward to, as well as looking back. Focusing on what remains is helpful to me.

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