Healthy Aging Part 7: Mental Wellness
by Robin Bush
Samuel is a glass-is-half-full person. He finds the best in everything, spends little if any time thinking of worst-case scenarios, and has found a glimmer of sunshine in even the darkest moments throughout his life. He is 98, smiles at everyone, and begins each day saying to his live-in caregiver, “I have so much more living to do today.”
Samuel has also always been a goal-setter. He spent his life envisioning the possibilities and developing plans that were likely to bring those possibilities about. When he was nine, he wanted to build a treehouse but had no nails. When his mother said they didn’t have money for nails, he was not to be defeated. He asked a neighbor if he could walk her dog in exchange for nails; if that weren’t enough, he’d harvest her beans too. He drew pictures of his dream tree house long before he ever hammered a nail. Later, he wanted to be the first to graduate college in his family and get a job with a good pension. He created a mental image of standing at the podium accepting his diploma and another of retirement with a wife by his side. WWII happened and sidelined his plans for several years, but he eventually used the 1944 GI Bill to pay his tuition. He graduated with honors, married his sweetheart, became an engineer for a national company, and received a generous pension that allowed for a comfortable retirement. Throughout his life, his mental images and steadfast optimism helped him stay on track even when significant events could have cut short that which he had set his heart on.
Research has found that optimistic mental imagery of future events increases the likelihood that those events will occur (Johnson & Sherman, 1990). Think about how that could impact the trajectory of your life!
Optimism is at the core of mental wellness, which is an important aspect of healthy aging. Mental wellness determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. It means we can weather expected and unexpected changes. It includes how we think, feel, and act as we cope with life. When each of these aspects of mental wellness is approached with optimism, the result is healthier aging.
Dr. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has found optimists tend to live longer, be more successful, and less likely to experience depression and other illnesses. His research shows optimism can even offer some protection against the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He says, “Being in the bottom quartile of pessimists is roughly the same as smoking two and three packs of cigarettes a day… Optimistic people live on average between six and eight years longer than pessimistic people.”
There are supportive behaviors that help us maintain the optimistic attitude needed to sustain mental and physical wellness and support healthy aging:
- Whenever thoughts arise about bad things that happened in the past or challenges around you today, consciously refocus your attention on positive things.
- Take a break from negative information – turn off the news periodically and listen more openly to people who believe differently.
- Practice gratitude. Think of all the things you are thankful for today. Then, enjoy the positive images that come to mind.
- Stay as physically active as you can. Exercise reduces stress and improves mood.
- Get adequate sleep at regular times each night.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Ask your physician about the link between nutrients and mental wellness.
- Identify and build your sense of purpose in your life. Arthur Ashe said, ”Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
- Meditate to cope with stressful situations.
- Use relaxation techniques – relax and tighten different muscles and try guided imagery or biofeedback devices to help you regulate your breath and heart rate.
- Take time out, many times a day, to take three deep breaths.
It is important to understand that even though we try, we can’t always reach mental wellness by ourselves, and we don’t need to. If you are struggling, know you are not alone. It is essential to reach out and seek help. Forming a plan with a professional can help put you on a path toward mental wellness that will support your healthy aging.
Find more information in the Positive Psychology toolkit from www.positivepsychologyprogram.com and the Get Inspired section at https://my.happify.com.