Optimism is vital as we age | Guest column

By Liz Taylor

Special to the Weekly

I met a delightful man some years ago whose optimism in the face of adversity was inspiring. He attended a workshop on memory loss that I facilitated, then volunteered for a quick memory test afterward. He almost flunked. It seems he was taking an experimental drug for glaucoma, which affected his short-term memory. “I can’t decide which is worse,” he joked, “to be blind or lose my mind.”

Despite his bad luck, everything about this man inspired a smile – his own smile, as a starter, plus his spunk and optimism. He matter-of-factly told me about other health challenges, including recovering from alcohol addiction. He radiated a positive vibrancy and told me that life was good. “The only way to be,” he said, “is optimistic. Life’s too difficult otherwise.”

I’ve often thought about the truth this man lived – that the secret of successful aging is attitude, rather than circumstances. It’s the age-old conundrum: is the glass half-empty or half-full? We focus on what we lack, but we can live more positively by celebrating what we have.

My favorite fortune cookie puts it this way: “Things usually turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.”

A well-known study supports this. In his excellent book, “Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us about Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives.”

David Snowdon, Ph.D, wrote about his research into the early lives of 678 nuns for clues to predict who in later life would develop Alzheimer’s disease. About a fourth of the nuns had written autobiographies in their early 20s. When Snowdon examined these essays for key words such as “happy,” “joy,” “love,” “hopeful” and “content,” he discovered that the nuns who had expressed more positive emotions lived as much as 10 years longer than those who did not.

Though the study sample is too small to be conclusive, it suggests that decades of negative thinking – like anxiety, hatred and anger — have a cumulative effect that may actually make us susceptible to poor health. Because it feels better to be happy, the body seems to thrive when people enjoy life, despite their burdens.

Sugar doesn’t run through my veins, and I’m no Pollyanna. I believe firmly in expressing anger, sadness or unhappiness when the situation warrants. However, I think we tend to grow unnecessarily pessimistic with age. The longer we live, the more lumps we absorb (some people more than others is the unfair truth). After 50 or 80 years, our worldview is often tainted by cynicism.

There’s much truth in the adage, “Our personalities don’t change as we grow older; we just get ‘more so.’” Rewiring our brains to be more positive can be hard. Try this for a while: count your blessings at least once a day, especially if you feel cranky. Smile rather than frown when your face is idle. And of course, focus on the good rather than the bad. With frequent, consistent application, optimism may creep ever so slowly back into your brain, sending you new signals about life – and maybe a longer time to enjoy it.