Positive Aging: Positive Psychology of Healthy Ageing

The human race is aging at an alarming pace. You and I will get old far sooner than we think. Click To Tweet

Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect who built 1000 structures and lived to 92 years, said, “The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.”

And Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the ‘Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century’ said, “Age is … a limitation you put on your mind.”

Those are beautiful thoughts to hold while we take stock of some heartbreaking facts.

A WHO survey revealed that the younger people hold a strong undertone of negativity towards old age and old people. This discrimination on the basis of one’s age is called ageism.

Sadly, such a stance of ageism can critically affect the physical and mental health of the seniors. The older people, made to feel like a burden on society, start to value their lives less worthy. This pushes them into high-risk zones of depression and social isolation, both of which can shorten lives.

What Is Positive Aging?

Positive aging, or healthy aging, is the use of positive psychology practices to maintain physical, mental, and social health in the later years of life. It involves nurturing an optimistic attitude in managing one’s life, engaging positively with others, and being as functional as one’s age allows.

Aging positively is not about postponing or masking the negative signs and effects of aging. It is not about how well we can avoid the unavoidable pitfalls of aging, but rather about how well we can focus on making our later years of life worthwhile.

Positive aging is more about having a good quality of life in old age, rather than appearing “ageless” in our external appearance.

In essence, it is about preserving and even enhancing our physical and mental health as we grow older. The goal is to be able to go about our daily lives with as little assistance as possible. It is also about being helpful to others around us rather than becoming a burden to our caregivers.

The concept of “positive aging,” also referred to as “healthy aging,” is achievable by every older person as we work to make better choices in the near-term to improve our lives in the long-term. Positive aging is basically adopting a positive view of aging as a healthy, normal part of life. — Brad Breeding

Today, seniors form a sizable part of the world population. People today are living much longer lives, and more are surviving to a ripe old age than even a few decades ago. The World Health Organization estimates the number of people aged 60+ would reach 2 billion globally by 2050.

In 2015, the elderly accounted for only 12% of all people on earth, or 0.9 billion people. By 2050, that figure will have nearly doubled, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s population then.

Year20152050
World population7.5 billion9.1 billion
Older population0.9 billion2.0 billion
‘Oldie’ percentage12 percent22 percent
Table: How much of humanity is old?

The Troubling Challenges of Aging

Elderly people have long been held as “irrelevant” and an economic drain on society, particularly in the West. Growing old in the 21st century is difficult and risky, and effective coping with age-related issues is critical to successful aging.

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The challenges related to aging, as a survey by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) found, are:

  • Maintaining social networks and activities
  • Maintaining health and fitness
  • Increased reliance on others
  • Feelings of sadness and loss
  • Ensuring financial security
  • Decreases in mobility

Positive aging involves successfully managing the above challenges and making the senior years healthy, fruitful, graceful, and meaningful.

7 Positive Psychology Strategies For Healthy Aging

Positive psychology research has revealed ways to deal better with the major changes in later life. Studies in positive aging focus on how to age well while minimizing the likelihood of being a bother to others, with an emphasis on their psychological well-being and happiness.

We don’t need to battle the aging process when we utilize positive psychology practices; instead, we find it easier to accept the constraints of our golden years and stay useful, helpful, and healthy enough to tackle the physical, social, and mental challenges.

Here are 7 strategies based on positive psychology to help stay positive about aging, and age healthily in both mind and body:

1. Stay focused on the positives of life. Stay grateful.

Keeping an optimistic outlook towards the future and feeling enthusiastic about life itself can help you get more out of your years. A 2019 study found that an optimistic attitude can help people live up to 15% longer and have a better chance of living to 85 or more.

You can age positively also by cultivating and keeping a positive mindset. Research has shown that a mental attitude of positivity can increase longevity.

Engage with life proactively and try to commit yourself to a few meaningful activities that are useful to you as well as others. Over time, this will help others see you as a helpful person to have around.

Discover the meaning and purpose of your life if you have not already. It will help you have a far more enjoyable quality of life.

•» So, keep a positive and optimistic attitude. Practice gratitude.

Positive Ageing
In picture: Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist-author, died in August 2015, surrounded by close friends and family, at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 82 years old. He spent his final days doing things he enjoyed, such as playing the piano, swimming, eating smoked salmon, and writing.

The New York Times referred to him as ‘the poet laureate of medicine.’ In Gratitude, Dr. Sacks reflects on and expresses his gratitude for a life well spent, as well as his thoughts on growing old, fighting terminal cancer, and reaching the end.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

— Oliver Sacks

2. Keep your brain alert, active, and flexible.

Carrying out tasks that give your brain a workout is vital to keep your thinking sharp. It could be as simple as reading books or listening to audiobooks, solving a crossword or Sudoku, learning new skills as origami, or playing chess.

Choose games you have fun playing, as you will be more likely to play them more often without getting frustrated. If you never liked Sudoku, then do not start because someone suggested you should. Remember to vary the types of activities and find balance and flow.

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You could also go on virtual tours of cities and places and fill your brain with ideas and visuals from new cultures and people. For example, you could tour The National Museum of Natural History.

Always believe and practice that you can keep learning and remembering, whatever your age. Our brain can reshape its parts according to demands on it — scientists call this neuroplasticity.

•» So, regularly engage your brain in stimulating activities.

live-life-with-vitality-elaine-obrien

3. Keep yourself free from stress as much as possible.

High levels of stress can cause damage to your psychological and physical self. Chronic stress can pull down your immunity and make you more prone to illnesses. Create environments where you can feel safe, stay in control, and make choices. Take prudent care of your money — as the lack of finances can be a toxic source of stress.

Stop overthinking and worrying your head off. Learn how to practice mindfulness and let life happen. Accept your boundaries; do not take up any bit more than you can handle. Learn to say ‘No’ to people who demand too much from you.

Positive aging is a multidimensional concept that combines various characteristics of aging well such as optimal, successful, productive, and healthy aging. Positive aging consists of five independent factors: health, cognition, activity, affect, and physical fitness. It is described in practice by a broad set of biopsychosocial factors and is assessed through both objective and subjective indicators. The basic notion is that at any age, including the old and very old, people are to some extent in charge of and responsible for their own quality of life. They can enjoy positive well-being and experience “successful aging.” — Liora Bar-Tur

•» So, try to keep your stress levels low.

4. Stay active. Do 30 min of moderate exercise every day

Physical exercise is a proven way to increase your productivity and health in your golden years, and drive away your old-age blues.

Exercise keeps your mind active and fresh, increases your mobility and balance, brings a more optimistic outlook towards life, and, of course, reduces the risks of several illnesses. Strength training can help maintain muscle mass, which can then reverse frailty and delay dependency or caregivers.

•» So, exercise your body regularly.

5. Don’t let go of your social connections. Don’t isolate yourself

Maintain your contact with others by joining clubs or going to places where those of your age gather, such as community parks, for morning or evening walks.

Keep in touch with your family and people who care about you. Even if you feel they have abandoned you because they got too busy, maintain contact with your family. Build meaningful relationships that nurture you.

A recent study showed that when one person in a couple-relationship avoids distress and conflicts, the other tries to do the same. And conversely, when one person seeks personal growth and meaningful experiences, the other wants to achieve them too.

Also, remember to respect others’ choices and try not to step on their toes.


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•» So, maintain your social connections.

6. Eat for health and energy rather than for taste and pleasure

Old age is a prime time to value the importance of healthy and nutritious food.

Include fresh foods in your diet to help yourself stay happier. Ask your doctor or dietician for advice on what foods you can have and what to avoid. Record your food allergies clearly in your medical diary, as “Allergic to peanuts, eggs, and eggplant.”

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As scientists have found, the brain foodsseafood, beans, nuts, and greens—can help keep your mental sharpness intact to a great extent.

The Japanese island Okinawa is one of the blue zones of planet Earth. Blue zones are places where people live exceptionally long and healthy lives.

Okinawa has men and women with the longest life expectancy in the world. The Okinawan men expect to live to about 84, while the women to almost 90. They have a growing community of people aged 100 years or more who are healthy in their day-to-day lives.

Eat less than what makes you feel full. This is the practice of the Japanese Hara Hachi Bu.

It means eating up to the point when your stomach is 80% full. Researchers have found this helps the digestive system churn and pound the food better, and move it down the gut faster.

•» So, eat more healthily and sparsely.

7. Seek regular help from your doctor and other health professionals

Keep a diary of your medical checkups and doctor appointments. Set up reminders so as not to miss them. Stop any unhealthy habits or addictions you might have, like smoking or drinking.

Ask for psychological help whenever you feel you are unable to cope with a situation with peace of mind. Never miss your medical checkups and doctor visits.

•» So, keep a medical diary and attend your medical check-ups.

Don’t waste so much time worrying about your skin or your weight. Develop what you do, what you put your hands on in the world.

— Meryl Streep, known as the “best actress of her generation”

Final Words

If we include the above age-positive interventions into our lives, we can age successfully, live our sunset years in good health, and grow old with poise and grace.

On the flip side, when society adopts a positive attitude towards our seniors, they feel more valued, positive, and optimistic.

Science shows, those who stay positive about aging have better longevity. In return, our seniors use some of those extra years to pay back society with their productivity, experience, and wisdom.

world population ageing report 2015

With positive aging, any senior may tackle most of the challenges of old age successfully. The following is what the Australian Psychological Society says about growing old with grace and poise:

Positive aging is … the process of maintaining a positive attitude, feeling good about yourself, keeping fit and healthy, and engaging fully in life as you age.

The elderly population is defined as people aged 65 and over. But we believe there is no typical age of an old person. All that reference to 65+ years to mean old age is just a current notion, and it’s a stigmatized one.

In the future, when they are more, we feel they should use their sheer numbers to find a more inspiring term to call themselves.

The human race is aging at an alarming pace. You and I will get old far sooner than we think.

positive-quote-aging-chekhov

Further Reading

Guy Robertson’s audiobook lays out ten steps for living a happy and satisfying old age. The exercises in this handbook engage the psychological and emotional aspects of aging for healthy and positive senior years.

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Why Do We Suffer If We Don’t Reduce Cognitive Dissonance?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


• Our story: Happiness Project


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