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Positive Ageing – an approach to happiness in later life

23 Jul 2020 | Guy Robertson

Ageism

Most people nowadays recognise that there is a connection between mind and body. For example, being stressed is commonly recognised as being bad for our physical health. What most people don't recognise however is that the mind's influence can be more extensive than that.

There is now a strong evidence base indicating that our beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world can make a huge difference to our physical wellbeing, and even how long we live. Ground-breaking research revealed the shocking reality that holding negative beliefs about ageing shortens life by an average of 7.5 years compared to those who hold more positive attitudes!

It appears that this happens when people 'internalise' negative ageist stereotypes which are prevalent in society. And the impact is not confined to lifespan - it affects the incidence of illness, the rate and extent of recovery from illness, mental wellbeing, physical impairment, and ultimately wellbeing and happiness. And Levy isn't the only researcher to uncover these effects; there is a large and growing evidence base.

The big question is whether there is a way through this. It turns out that there is much from the field of humanistic psychology which can help. Becoming aware of, and then challenging, our unconscious bias against ageing is the gateway into addressing this unhelpful phenomenon. We patently can't prevent or delay the ageing process; but we don't have to inhabit an identity which conforms to ageist stereotypes of 'being old'.

End Ageism

We need to resist such stereotypes because they do two things. Firstly, they tend to impose a sort of 'self-censorship' which limits our aspirations and curtails some of the activities or pleasures that we would otherwise experience. In other words they foster self-limiting beliefs, which cause us to narrow rather than broaden our options.

Secondly, ideas around 'being old' actively trigger and perpetuate a range of negative self fulfilling prophecies. If you believe that you are going to feel worse as you age, then you can almost guarantee that you will experience that negative outcome. It is so important to constantly guard against negative self-fulfilling prophecies.

Drawing from the disciplines of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness and Positive Psychology there is now an evidence based programme to maximise wellbeing and happiness in later life. The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing is a handbook for personal change in later life and has been designed to open up the possibility of a radically different approach to ageing. The traditional approach tends to be passive, fatalistic and rather downbeat. This new positive approach is very different - it advocates action and agency.

Do Something Today

The actual Ten Steps can be summarised as follows:-

  • Step 1: Reflecting on death and our own mortality can enliven and bring more joy and satisfaction to our lives.
  • Step 2: Doing a reality check on the negative ideas and images about ageing can help us get a more balanced picture.
  • Step 3: Ageism is no laughing matter and negative stereotypes and ageist attitudes can cause us real harm. We need to protect ourselves from this.
  • Step 4: Relationships with other people are so important as we age. We need to maintain and improve our friendships and even develop new connections.
  • Step 5: Mindfulness is a particularly helpful tool for improving our later lives.
  • Step 6: Developing a broadly based sense of positive wellbeing is an important counterweight to the widespread negativity and fears around ageing.
  • Step 7: Looking back on our lives can help us extract valuable learning from our past experiences which can help us deal with future challenges.
  • Step 8: Clarifying what gives us meaning and a sense of purpose in our lives is critical to maintaining our motivation and wellbeing.
  • Step 9: Developing an explicit vision for how we want our lives to be and what we want to achieve can help us make the best of our precious later years.
  • Step 10: Building our resilience helps us survive (and perhaps even thrive from) the many challenges and transitions as we age

This is an outline of the steps; what is then required is to use the evidence based tools and self-reflective questionnaires which make The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing an actual workbook for personal change in later life.

Just as we had to learn to grow up, so we have to learn to grow old. If we don 't put some thought and attention into preparing for these years, then, at best, we could very easily feel short-changed or disappointed; at worst, we could dramatically increase the risks of illness, disability, unhappiness and early death. However, if we take some time to look closely at the steps for positive ageing, then we are much more likely to age well and reap the benefits.

Positive Ageing

About The Author

Guy Robertson is author of The Ten Stops of Positive Ageing: a handbook for personal change in later life. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd

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