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November 2018
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Adding Life to Years
by Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
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Optimism: What is it and how does it affect our aging?

Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss

Optimism is a mental attitude or world view. Optimists have a tendency to make lemonade out of lemons. A common idiom used to illustrate optimism versus pessimism is a glass with water at the halfway point, where the optimist is said to see the glass as half full and the pessimist sees the glass as half empty. Being optimistic reflects a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable. Optimism is a choice, not a method and it works for everybody. By believing in a positive future, you are one step closer to happiness, peace and enjoyment. So being optimistic is being the creator of your destiny, don’t allow harmful forces to impact it.

Martin E.P. Seligman (2006) in his book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” refers to three particular modern forces, which are responsible for causing an epidemic of anxiety and depression among us: The lack of unity by intensely focusing on individual characteristics; Social media boom and the absence of real relations; and People’s priority on developing self-esteem. Research has led to an unpleasant revelation people who disregard other people’s feelings and believed that unwarranted high self-regard is a good thing, were more prone to violence, criminal behavior, and even murder.

Why should we develop a more optimistic explanatory style that can lead to something better? Optimism is not a method for disposable use. It is a concept or an evolved mind-set capable of seeing the best in any situation. Our inner voice inside our heads is a tricky business. Our inner voice can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you perceive different life circumstances and unpleasant situations. You surely have found yourself in a pessimistic funk and supported by helplessness and weakness. The pessimists see negativity, while optimists have a broader perspective. The pessimists are continually setback, while the optimists see it as life lessons. We tend to take life too seriously. Optimists have a different attitude towards problems, for them, they are just temporary.

Seligman has good news for us as we age. You can learn optimism by resisting those negative sensations that arise on a daily basis. Some people may think that optimism is positive thinking, but they are not quite accurate. Optimism is life, it is not a feeling. It is a path that everyone should take. Seligman offers his readers useful cognitive techniques designed to change your mind set by giving you the real sense of optimism. His key elements of “Learned Optimism” is to create a balanced life, deal with defeats and failures, and care for the community over your life cycle.

Within the pessimistic approach there is one unique gift – stubbornness. From time to time, we all have certainly caught ourselves thinking that away. Pessimists speak and portray different situations or circumstances with accuracy. Being too optimistic is not recommended either since that would be less realistic. It is okay to fail in life, but the difference lies in the reaction. The resilient people react differently than the pessimistic ones who fall into long-lasting depression.

How to cope with failures? Is it permanent or just a temporary thing? It is all up to you, set your future goals, motivate yourself and go on. People with bad habits are more prone to experience depression as a result of the negative aura that surrounds them. The optimist also cares for the community. There are doers and delayers. The doers tend to take better care of themselves and the community overall. Those that practice this life style have the spirit which keeps them motivated.

Optimism is an admirable quality, one that can positively affect mental and physical health. Some optimists consistently ascribe benevolent motives to others and interpret situations in the best possible light; others simply disassociate their internal mood from external circumstances. Optimism is about learning to make the most of the limited freedom of will that we do have. Free will should be treated as a valuable resource that is not to be squandered.

There are many avenues of free will and self expression available to us at relatively low cost to improve our lives and other lives in the community. If I did not have a single dollar in my pocket, I still could go down to the public library and read a book or use the computer. I could make up a new song or draw a picture. The real enemy here is not lack of resources, it is negativity and despair. I can do all of these things if and only if I believe in the opportunities available to me. Now we are getting at the crux of why optimism is necessary doubt and despair rob us of the limited resources that we do have.

Now optimism will not, by itself, solve depression, despair and all the mental health issues. People with mental illness should, by all means, seek professional help. However, optimism does have a preventative value if it is embraced early and strongly enough. Positive thinking does not cure everything, nor is it magical. When we embrace an optimistic approach on purpose and of our own volition, we avoid some of the worst consequences of a despairing outlook. Being optimistic is “adding life to years.”

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at larry@addinglifetoyears.com or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.