Note: In this first of a three-part series adapted from the upcoming book Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy, author and clinician Andrea Brandt looks at how to nurture realistic positivity past 50.
Some people seem to be authentically positive—optimistic, uplifting to be around, at peace with themselves—even though they may have, like all of us, lived through deeply challenging or hurtful experiences. We call them courageous. We marvel at their resilience. We love to be around them for the strength and personal power they exude. We’d like some of the secret sauce they’ve been seasoning their life with. They’re not in denial about their troubles, but they’re also not beaten by them. They seem to have truly accepted “what is” and yet they don’t accept that this is the end of the road for them. They know that life is precious, keep their focus on what’s working and good, and feel appreciation for all they have. And they know themselves. They know what they want, and they put their energy into having it, whether in a quiet, unassuming way or with an obvious passion that can easily be seen and heard. They live fully, fiercely, and in the moment, realizing it’s all they really have. As a result, they feel vital and connected, and live happy, meaningful lives. This is our goal.
With or without the blessings of a relatively beneficent childhood, all of us have to work at the task of becoming people we admire and having a life we love. Some of us may have to work a little harder than others, but this is an achievable goal for everyone. Instead of letting our strengths become eroded by the stresses of life—or fortifying ourselves behind a wall in an attempt to keep the stresses out—we need to create a relationship with life that allows its flow to move through us rather than tear us down.
This is what I will call realistic positivity, a mindset that helps us to grow better as we grow older and to create a life we truly love.
Strategies for Developing Realistic Positivity: Put Your Perception in Perspective
You may have heard of the term realistic optimism, first used by positive psychologist Martin Seligman and now also used by others to mean “the ability to look realistically at what is, as well as what is possible, and choose a perspective that enhances one’s ability to make the best of the moment and bring one’s best to life.”
Our interpretations of events and the conclusions we’ve drawn are highly subjective and based on a number of different factors, the least of which may be factual reality. The good news is that we can change how we perceive ourselves and what’s happening around us. To avoid getting stuck in false assumptions about “how it is” or “how things are” created by our own tunnel vision, it’s important to broaden our viewpoint, especially in the face of a challenge.
One of the best ways to do this comes from Seligman, who teaches his clients to look at the worst, best, and most likely case scenarios in a situation. This strategy helps us steer clear of either catastrophic or Pollyanna thinking—so that we’re neither overwhelmed by negative possibilities nor in denial of potential pitfalls—and makes us more able to envision and work toward a realistic, positive result. Say the weathercaster is forecasting heavy rain for tomorrow. Worst case, the rain could cause flooding and destruction. Best case, the forecast could be totally wrong and tomorrow full of sunshine. Most likely, the weathercaster is right, at least to some degree, but the rain won’t cause any serious problems.
Realistic positivity draws from Seligman’s strategy, and means seeing and accepting what is now—both in our inner and outer worlds—and then putting our focus on what we’d love. We’re actually much more powerful creating something we love than trying to stave off problems. That’s because the force behind our intention and action is love rather than fear. As an energy, love is always more empowering than fear. We’re much stronger when working to create the positive than when working to avoid or fix the negative. The reason for this brings us back to focus: where we put our attention is what we end up creating. Instead of our focus being on the fear of dying, it’s on the joy of living. I encourage you in any situation to cultivate a vision based on what you’d truly love and to concentrate on making that your goal. Because the mind envisions and creates in images, we do this most powerfully using our imagination—painting positive pictures of what we want to experience or create.
Use Empowering Self-Talk
A very important piece of maintaining a mindset of realistic positivity is our self-talk. This is where our dreams receive the rocket fuel they need to gain blastoff and reach their orbit or get shot down before they leave the ground. Most of us have an over-developed self-critic that doesn’t seem to go away with age—unless we train it. If someone else heard our inner conversations, we’d want to hide. Training the inner conversationalist can be a journey in itself.
We all have the ability to choose what we focus on as well as what we say to ourselves about it. This includes what we focus on and say about ourselves. Our self-talk influences every part of our life and might just be the most important thing we do all day—either building up our confidence and self-esteem for going after what we want in life or reducing us to a pile of rubble where we waste precious time and energy reciting all the reasons we can’t. Similarly, decreasing the amount of negative thinking we do about others and the world also propels us to act and take risks, as it increases oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that greatly affects our confidence.
A key to living your best life at any age is to adopt self-talk that reminds you that you’re in the driver’s seat, that you’re actually very powerful and have a huge capacity to grow, and that you have the ability to choose and the inner resources to effectively handle challenges. You can create your life the way you want it to be. For example, just look at how differently you feel when you replace “have to” with “get to” or “choose to,” or when you replace “problem” with “project”: “I choose to get up and go to work today,” and “I have a health project.”
Positive self-talk helps us build on our successes. Acknowledging your efforts, progress, and achievements will create a momentum that then takes on a life of its own. You’ll also want to be specific rather than offer yourself general praise, for the greatest effect. “You’re great—I love you” is less effective in developing confidence to keep stretching and tackling the next challenge than, say, “Look at how thoroughly you cleaned and organized the garage.” People who succeed aren’t always naturally gifted, but they are always willing to do—they take action, fear or no fear.
Find Inspiration in Role Models
Finding others we admire as people and adopting them as role models is a realistic positivity strategy that has tremendous potential to lift us up. Whether we appreciate their achievements, qualities they possess, or ways in which they have endured, overcome, and grown from challenges, other people can be a huge source of inspiration for us and the catalyst for developing resilience. Some of the seniors I most admire, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, are fully active, happy, and making substantial contributions to society. They’re magnificent role models. Seeing what’s possible via others’ examples, we gain new reference points for setting our own intentions, expectations, and goals.
This should never, however, lead us to make comparisons or beat ourselves up for not “living up” to what someone else has done. As Theodore Roosevelt reputedly said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” Rather, it’s about giving ourselves a positive vision for our own goals and expanding our thinking about what is possible for us. It’s about making the impossible possible by first changing our beliefs. Even the consideration of what is possible starts to create change.
Ask yourself whether there are still places to explore, develop, and grow. Learn about people you look up to, and make them your heroes. After identifying and incorporating a lesson that benefits you, move on to the next!
Andrea Brandt, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, California. She’s the author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness and Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom.
This blog is adapted from Andrea Brandt’s upcoming book, Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy.