2001 – May

May, 2001 Issue 2

The Positive Aging Newsletter

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen

Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice

May, 2001

In this issue:


This is the second issue of this newsletter, devoted to appreciating the process of growing older. The continuing attempt in the newsletter is – through the medium of research and practice – to reframe the concept and experience of aging. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging becomes an unprecedented period of human enrichment. We appreciate the many kind words sent to us in response to the first issue. In this and subsequent issues we will feature relevant materials sent by readers. All are welcome to join in sharing.

Many thanks, Ken and Mary

Focal Commentary

Research and the Positive Reconstruction of Aging. Much traditional research on aging has been born of the negative stereotypes common to the culture at large. If aging is a period of decline, as so broadly believed, then it became the task of research to chart this decline, to understand its severity, extensity, accelerating factors, and so on. Although having its place, in the long run such research adds unwittingly and unfairly to the force of the stereotype, and to the common dread of growing old. There are, however, three major ways in which research can reverse this downward spiral. A first step toward reconstruction lies in RESISTANT ANALYSES of data, that is, analyses that do not terminate when the negative stereotype is confirmed. A good example is provided by Alwin and Ryan’s research (2001) challenging the typical expectation that verbal ability declines as with age. By employing cohort analysis they showed that only a tiny portion of the decline (one-third of 1% of the variance) could be accounted for by age alone. In contrast, cohort differences in educational level proved to be the major predictor of such decline. As one might expect, people with less education were less verbally proficient. The second way research can reverse the negative stereotype of aging is through POSITIVE FOCUS. To illustrate, early research indicated that aging people were more likely than younger ones to speak “off the topic” of conversation, a phenomenon researchers called “off topic verbosity.” Through positive focus, James and her colleagues (1998)demonstrated that this conversational pattern was limited only to autobiographical reports, and these reports were used by the elderly to emphasize the significance of their life-long experiences. They served a positive function. Further, independent evaluators rated the stories told by older people more favorably than the leaner and duller stories of the young. Finally, researchers can CREATIVELY CONSTRUCT positive ways of understanding aging processes. The research on wisdom, discussed in the previous issue of the Newsletter, is a good example. Drawing from cultural history, the concept of wisdom creatively constructs a positive way of viewing age changes in mental ability. In effect, research does not simply report on the world as it is; more importantly, it creates our understanding of the world – for good or ill.

Ken and Mary Gergen
Alwyn, D.F. and Ryan, J. M. (2001) Aging, cohorts, and verbal ability. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. 56B, S151-S161.
James, L.E., Burke, D. Austin, A and Hulme, E. (1998) Production and perceptions of “verbosity” in younger and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 13, 355-367.


Significant Research

– Subjective Well-Being Across the Lifespan: Decades of Progress.

What makes for the good life is a question that has intrigued people of all ages and times. Today many psychologists treat the issue in terms of “subjective well-being,” often separated into three components: positive emotions (e.g. joy, contentment), satisfaction with life (e.g. work, family life and leisure), and absence of negative emotions (e.g. fear, envy, or anger). In this thoughtful review of the substantial literature on this topic, one of the most important findings is the rather startling refutation of the commonplace assumption that the sense of well-being declines during the latter years of life. In fact, in terms of satisfactions with many facets of life, people become more pleased with their lives as they age. Nor is there evidence of a strong increase in negative emotions with age. Ratings of positive emotions tend to decline with age, although the reviewers in this article argue that what changes over age is the intensity of emotional experiences, not their positivity. Thus, older people are less likely to report “feeling on top of the world” or “energetic” than younger people, but their feelings of contentment and affection are not lessened. One of the central conclusions in this overview is that even when tragedy strikes, such as paralysis or a stroke, people’s sense of well-being is not permanently affected. In common terms, people seem to have amazing capacities to rebound from difficult circumstances. For details see: Subjective Well-Being: Three Decades of Progress by Ed Diener, Eunkook M. Suh, Richard E. Lucas, & Heidi L. Smith. Psychological Bulletin, March, 1999, 125, 276-302.

– When Getting Older is Getting Better.

As these researchers propose, when people are asked to describe their present life in comparison to the past, they tend to glorify the present over the past. The more personally important the trait they are judging, the more this tendency is found. Thus, if being a “compassionate person” is important to someone, they are more likely to rate themselves as more compassionate now than they were at a younger age. People tend to describe this improvement in their capacities, even when there is no objective evidence that they have improved. This general pattern is found to be especially strong among younger and middle aged people. Other studies have shown that when people get older, they are more varied in their self appraisals – possibly more perceptive and protective of their past as well as their present selves. Researchers suggest that older people may protect their self-esteem by either continuing to emphasize their improvement at some things, such as golf or chess, and discounting other attributes (such physique or stamina). In general the researchers believe that people in “individualistic” countries, such as the U.S., are highly motivated to think well of themselves.People tend to evaluate their past selves in such a manner as to sustain a good self appraisal in the present, and this usually, but not always, means sensing themselves as improving. In other cultures – where group belonging is highly valued – the tendency to glorify one’s individual traits is less likely to occur. For details see: From
chump to champ: People’s appraisals of their earlier and present selves by Anne E. Wilson & Michael Ross. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, 80, 572-584.

News Reports

-Older Adults Pray Away Stress

A study co-sponsored by the University of Florida and Wayne State University found that prayer is a major source of stress relief for older people. A survey of 50 people (average age of 74) at six community senior centers and one church in Detroit indicated that 84% reported using prayer more than other remedies to feel better or to maintain their health. They were more likely to pray than exercise, practice relaxation techniques, apply heat, or use herbal remedies. Almost all of the participants described themselves as Christians. Thus, the sample was biased in favor of the religious. Those most likely to pray were African Americans and women; least likely to pray were white men.Those who prayed were also found to use more positive and self-reliant coping strategies. From The Gainesville Sun, Jan. 2, 2001.

Book Alert

Herb Lefcourt shares the following book information:
Humor: The Psychology of Living Buoyantly, by Herb Lefcourt (Plenum/Kluwer, 2001). “While not directly concerned with aging, its focus upon perspective-taking’ humor – associated with acceptance of thoughts about mortality and the human condition – shares a lot with what we mean by wisdom”

Melvin Miller shares the following:
Spirituality, Ethics, and Relationship: Clinical and Theoretical
Explorations, Melvin Miller and Alan N. West (Eds.) (International Universities Press-Psychosocial Press, 2000) Offers interdisciplinary perspectives on how creativity, personal maturity, and spirituality relate to each other in positively affecting our lives.
Creativity, Spirituality, and Transcendence, Melvin Miller and Suzanne Cook-Greuter (Eds.) (ABLEX, 2000). Offers new and hopeful perspectives on spirituality, ethics and relationship.
The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom,
Transcendence, Polly Young-Eisendrath and Melvin Miller (Eds.) (Routledge, 2000) An account of a newly developing form of adult spirituality.

Web Resources

Steve Wilson suggested the following web resource:

www.worldlaughtertour.com “When we started demonstrating and training in ‘How To Create Therapeutic Laughter and Laughter Clubs’ we had no idea how fast it would catch on in long term care (senior centers, assisted living, adult day care, nursing homes). In fact, our training program has been approved for CE credits for Activity Therapists.

Reader Commentary

– On the Contagion of Distress.
In our last issue we reported research suggesting that expressions of great distress could decrease the likelihood of receiving help from family and friends. More up-beat attitudes toward one’s situation seemed more productive. Here a therapist responds to this report, adding further insight of practical significance:
“I am a psychologist in private practice… In reference to the article on distress and social support, I have the opportunity…of working with clients struggling with chronic, disabling illnesses.Complaints about lack of social support are common. In parallel, when I interview spouses or other family members, I commonly hear complaints which amount to being overwhelmed by the distress of the client with the (medical) illness. One concept I find helpful is the contagion of affect. That is, distress (as well as other affects) spread from one person to another. Because distress is noxious, people seek to avoid it. When living in close relationship with someone who is often or chronically in distress, spouses and others in the support network may tend to withdraw or distance themselves, leading to feelings of abandonment in the individual with the (medical) illness. There is a danger of a vicious cycle: the client experiences distress. The distress is noxious to the other, who in turn avoids it. The client feels abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored, which increases distress.(Helplessness is often part of the experience of the other, contributing to the avoidance of distress.)
I often find that therapy (with the individual, not the couple) has an effect, sometimes almost immediate, in increasing perceived support and intimacy, and decreasing (perceived) abandonment. (In therapy)… the client receives attention for the distress. Because the therapist does not defend against the distress, blocking it, the client experiences relief of distress. At home, the spouse/family responds to the decreased distress of the primary client with increased intimacy, often without understanding why. This can bring a cascade of improvement. With distress decreased and intimacy at home increased, the primary client often experiences an increase in functional capacity – the medical illness seems to become less disabling….There is sometimes an unfortunate corollary to this picture. Because psychotherapy is ‘working’ in the eyes of the other (e.g. spouse), there can be a tendency to downplay the underlying medical llness. This can lead to increased blaming of the primary client. Sometimes this is expressed as the phenomenon of ‘it really was all in your head,’ or at least increased blaming for the ‘bad days,’ the days on which the illness is more active or more painful. This effect can often be reduced by a single therapy session in which the spouse is seen for 1/2 the session, and the couple is seen together for the balance of the time… From Brett Schur, Ph.D. 5100 State Road, Drexel Hill, PA 19026 (610) 259-7150 bschur@msn.com

Upcoming Events

Society for Research on Adult Development conference in NYC, this June 22-24, will feature papers on positive dimensions of adult development. See http://www.norwich.edu/srad/index.html

May 1, 2001 12:00 am