Reading an article or a chapter on having a positive attitude toward aging is a good start, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. I don’t need anyone to tell me that feeling glum about getting older is the worst possible attitude to have, and it can only have a deleterious effect on my mental and physical well-being.
According to the University of Minnesota newsletter, Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing, “Negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can create chronic stress, which upsets the body’s hormone balance, depletes the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damages the immune system. Chronic stress can actually decrease our lifespan.”
I know this intellectually but not viscerally. The question is how do I incorporate this knowledge into my very being? How do I produce a complete paradigm shift?
I think the answer is something called cognitive restructuring—the therapeutic process of identifying and challenging negative and irrational thoughts and reframing them in a more constructive way. Let’s say you feel a bit annoyed every time your adult children say, “Be careful” at the end of a phone call or visit. While you might be tempted to tell them you are perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, what if you could cognitively restructure that reaction? (This one comes from personal experience. In my family, “be careful” seems to have replaced goodbye.) I have realized that “be careful” springs from love and concern for my safety. They worry about me, and when they aren’t around, they want to remind me to be aware of my surroundings and stay safe. Believe it or not, that little exercise has completely changed my attitude about those two words.
Here’s a more serious thought to challenge and reframe: You become depressed when you think of all your friends who are sick or dying or slipping into dementia, and you wonder when your turn will come. Those are serious concerns, but it is possible to feel sorrow for your friends’ misfortunes while still being grateful for the state of your own health. This one also hits close to home, and it takes vigilance to remember to be grateful in the midst of all that sadness.
Here’s one more: You’re feeling old because your walker has become an appendage, and you have to use a wheelchair at the airport. It’s fair to assume that you need both of those aids, but that’s probably not persuasive. What if you told yourself that your walker keeps you steady and helps you to walk longer distances than you could without it; and being in a wheelchair at the airport helps you avoid long lines and delays, eliminates the need to walk through the long concourses, and allows you to be among the first to board. To me, sailing through the airport without getting out of breath and tired has become something I appreciate.
This habit doesn’t come naturally. It takes some time and effort, but to me, it is worth both. For one thing, it feels better to be happy than to be sad. For another, negative attitudes and emotions compromise your health and shorten your life. If that’s not a reason to change the way you think, I don’t know what is!