Feb, 2002 Issue 11
The Positive Aging Newsletter
Wednesday, February 27, 2002
by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Relationship and Life Meaning
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice Issue No 11
In this Issue:
What gives meaning to life in the later years? What provides thenourishment, zest and joy of daily living? In the middle years the answerswere often obvious - romance, one’s profession, raising children, moving up, dedication to a cause, and so on. But in the later years many of thecommon answers cease to be relevant, and depression is a frequent result.The pages of this newsletter have been filled with examples of people finding new horizons of meaning in later life. What is the key? At least one compelling possibility is that meaning/full endeavors spring primarily from relationships. It is through relationships that we negotiate good andevil, separate worth from worthless, and determine that certain activitiesare rewarding while others a waste of time.
While theory, research and daily experience lend support to thispossibility, we were intrigued this month by research reporting on thecomponents of extreme happiness. Psychologists Ed Diener and MartinSeligman used a number of measures to identify three groups of people, theVery Happy, the Very Unhappy, and a Middle group. The first group was identified, for example, by their greater satisfaction with life and thegreater frequency of experiencing positive emotions. The importantquestion, however, was what are the necessary and sufficient conditionsfor being a Very Happy person. Interestingly, available income, the number of positive events, and physical attractiveness did not make a contribution to happiness. The Very Happy group did not differ in theserespects from their counterparts. By far the most powerful contributors to being Very Happy were good relationships. The Very Happy group differed strongly from the others in number of close friends and thestrength of their family relationships. They also spent more time with their friends and family than did the other groups. In fact, all membersof the Very Happy group reported good-quality social relationships!
It is important to note that the very happy sample did not simply have asmile glued to their face. The results showed that they experienced the full range of negative emotions common to life. They simply didn’t remainin the stew. And to be sure the research results can be explained in manydifferent ways. However, such findings do lend support to the view thatexperiencing joy in life and nourishing relationships walk hand in hand.Past relationships may also live on with one, lending meaning to dailylife even when others are physically absent. But when the embers of significance begin to dim, new relationships may be the most effectivefuel.
Ken and Mary Gergen
Reference: Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman, (2002) Very Happy People,Psychological Science, 13, 81-84.
Related article: “Healthy Relationships”
- Broadening and Building Positive Emotions
While negative emotions - fear, depression, anger - are inevitable and occasionally useful, they can also cost. They can swell into chronic depression, precipitate suicide, possibly lead to heart disease andcancer, and foster antisocial behavior, including violence. Research now indicates that by cultivating positive emotions one can intervene in thedownward spiral of negative emotions.
The investigator, Barbara Frederickson, first demonstrates that negativeemotions tend to lead to a narrow set of actions. When we feel depression,for example, we tend to close down our activity; we seem to experience little choice in the matter. In contrast, Frederickson proposes that positive emotions are not so prescriptive; they leave us with manyoptions. A feeling of joy, for example, creates readiness and urges toplay, to be imaginative, to feel free from rule-defined behavior. "It involves exploration, invention, and just plain fooling around." Orconsider, contentment and related emotions, like serenity and tranquility.Here an individual is inclined to savor the moment or recent experiences,feel "oneness" with others or the world, and integrate experiences into ameaningful whole. There is a reflective broadening of self and worldviews.
But most importantly the positive emotions build internal resources. Theemotions pass away, but they leave strengths in their wake. She calls thisview of positive emotions the broaden-and-build model, and cites studiesof married couples in which unhappy pairs seem condemned to rigid,predictable ways of interacting, while happy pairs tend to have plenty ofplay, spontaneity, and unpredictability in their interactions. They buildup resources for shortening and limiting the negative emotions that arepart of normal life.
As Frederickson proposes, when we engage in positive emotions we loosenthe hold of the negative. In negative emotions, our horizon is close andnarrow; our attention and behavior seek specific targets. In positiveemotions, our horizon is wide, open, and beckoning. Physiologically, thetwo types of emotion are incompatible. Experimental results show that infact, "positive emotions have a unique ability to down-regulate thelingering cardiovascular aftereffects of negative emotions."
The wisdom of positive emotions can also be put into daily practice.Frederickson outlines several effective means of putting the positiveemotions to work:
- Relaxation exercises:
These invite positive feelings ofcontentment,and could include, (1) imagery exercises, for example imagining a peacefuland inviting meadow; (2) muscle exercises, like progressive musclerelaxation or roaring with laughter; and (3) meditation exercises, ofwhich there are many forms.
- Searching for positive meaning:
Frederickson emphasizes that themeanings we attach to events is crucial in whether they yield positive ornegative emotions. Finding positive meaning in everyday life, and especially in adverse circumstances, can prevent or dissipate negativeemotions and their harmful physiological effects.
- Positive expressions:
It is important to share positive feelingswith others. Positive emotions create and are nourished in empathicrelationship.
From: Barbara L. Frederickson, (2000) "Cultivating Positive Emotions toOptimize Health and Well-Being," Prevention and Treatment, Vol. 3,
Related article: “Take a Deep Breath… and Relax”
- Older as Smarter
Whether you believe that intelligence declines or advances over thelifespan depends on how you conceptualize and measure intelligence. The traditional approach is to regard intelligence as a biological predisposition. On this view, the biological decline of aging is accompanied by a decline in intelligence. However, there are alternatives.In his book, Intellectual Development in Adulthood: The SeattleLongitudinal Study, K. W. Schaie, offers a more optimistic view of agingand adult intellect by showing that many abilities, including reasoning ability, are well preserved into and beyond the 60s. These findings are consistent with a view of intelligence defined in terms of abilities to retain and apply knowledge derived from cultural and educational experience.
The present study extends this latter view of intelligence-as-knowledge.In particular, the researchers favor an "investment" theory ofintelligence, holding that an individual can "invest" his or her cognitive resources to acquire knowledge about the world. Such knowledge does not require extended education, and can include the benefits of job experience, hobbies, travels, and the like. And, such intelligence canhave excellent pay-offs in terms of life outcomes.To explore these ideas further, the present research studied a sample of153 adults ranging in age from 20 to 69, all of whom had some college experience. All were given tests of current-events knowledge, along with other measures of intelligence and personality.
The research results first indicate that the older adults were more knowledgeable than younger adults about current events. Further, an intelligence measure of the ability to retain and apply knowledge fromexperience was more highly related to current events knowledge than a measure of biologically based intelligence. While some theorists may still want to identify a "pure" measure of adult intelligence, these researchers advocate an assessment that includes life experience, and suggest thatseekers of a "pure" measure are misguided. In very important ways, andwith the right investments in living, many people become smarter withage.
From: Margaret E. Beier and Phillip L. Ackerman (2001) Current-EventsKnowledge in Adults: An Investigation of Age, Intelligence, and NonabilityDeterminants. Psychology and Aging, 16, 615-628
Related article: “Intelligence and Aging: You Can Keep It With You”
- The Aging Population: Growing Powerful
* 50 plus age group is the fastest growing segment of the population.* Seniors control 48 percent of all discretionary spending* Of all new cars purchased, 43% are bought by older people.* The net worth of seniors is five times that of other Americans.
From: Catering to the Elderly can Pay Off by Fred Brock. The New YorkTimes, Feb; 1, 2002.
- A Toast for Good Health
A new study indicates that moderate consumption of alcohol, which hasalready been shown to help prevent heart disease and strokes, may alsoward off Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
The 6 year study, published in the Lancet medical journal in January,2002, by scientists at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, involving over 5,000 people aged 55 and over who did not have signs of dementia. Participants were asked whether they ever drank alcohol. Those who saidyes were quizzed on how often they drank and what they drank: wine, beer,spirits and fortified wine such as sherry and port. The men mostly drank beer and liquor, while women preferred wine and fortified wine.
By the end of the study in 1999, 197 of the participants had developedAlzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Those who fared best were peoplewho had one to three drinks a day. They had a 42 percent lower risk of developing dementia than the nondrinkers. The researchers found that itdoes not seem to matter what people drink - the effect is the same.
The finding adds to a growing body of evidence for the health benefits of moderate drinking. Researchers suggested the blood-thinning and cholesterol-lowering properties of ethanol in alcohol may ward offdementia, which is often caused by a blood-vessel problem. Another possibility, the study speculated, is that low levels of alcohol couldstimulate the release of acetylcholine, a brain chemical believed to facilitate learning and memory.
"For people who drink moderately, this is another indication that they are not doing any harm. And for those who don’t, they might want to rethinkthat position," said Meir Stampfer, professor of nutrition andepidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved inthe study.
From: A new plus seen in a few drinks by Emma Ross, Associated Press,January 25, 2002.
Related article: “A Closer Look at Alcohol and Health”
- Aging Successfully: Psychological Aspects of Growing Old
Margaret and Paul Baltes, internationally famous gerontologists, havecreated a video that draws from their important work on successful aging.This film includes engaging vignettes of people leading fulfilling lives,including writers Betty Friedan and Joan Erikson, and dancer Bud Mercer.The Baltes discuss personality components that generally lead to positiveaging experiences in this visually and intellectually appealing video.In 1998 this video won the prestigious International CINDY Gold Medal Award. It is recommended for health sciences and academic collectionswith an emphasis on gerontology. The video is the first of a five partseries; later offerings will be reviewed in subsequent newsletters.The videos are distributed by Davidson Films: (805)594-0422; fax (805)594-0532, www.davidsonfilms.com. A special offer is in effect expiring March 15, 2002.
- Celebrating What’s Right with the World- Everyday Creativity
We recommend two films produced and narrated by Dewitt Jones, the renownphotojournalist from National Geographic. The films are gloriouslycolorful, with his award-winning photos a major attraction. In the filmdesigned to celebrate the world, Jones takes an appreciative stance,providing viewers with a sense of the richness of everyday life. Giventhe usual problem-ridden talk of the day, it is inspiring to hear Jonesproclaim the wonders and beauties of the world, if one only stops to look,and then look again. In Everyday Creativity Jones illustrates how we canall be more creative in our lives, without any extraordinary gifts oftalent or expertise. The films are useful as developmental tools intraining workshops, educational institutions, and wherever people of allages gather together looking for a better "take on life." Each film comeswith a leader’s guide, a participant workbook, and a powerpointpresentation on CD-ROM.The videos are distributed by Star Thrower, 26 East Exchange ST. Suite600, St. Paul, MN 55101. 1-800-242-3220 The website is www.starthrower.com
Norman Sundberg ([email protected]
) shares with the readers excerptsfrom a personal essay left by his long-term colleague, co-author and closefriend, Leona Tyler (1906-1993). Leona taught in the University of OregonPsychology Department starting in 1940 and later became Dean of theGraduate School. She was also President (the fourth woman) of theAmerican Psychological Association and author of over 10 books. Thepresent essay will remain in the Archives of the History of AmericanPsychology in Akron, Ohio.
On Suddenly Finding Myself at the age of 77.Most of the poetry, essays and scholarly books written about aging havebeen the work of authors who were still facing the challenge of growingold. As they observe elderly individuals and contemplate their own lateryears, what they see is an inevitable decline, a process that makes lifeless and less rewarding as years pass. Optimistic gerontologists can citeresearch indicating that the decline is less precipitous than it wasformerly assumed to be. Essayists offer the hopeful reminder that thereare some exceptions to the general rule. If octogenarian Goethe couldwrite books and nonogenarian Rubenstein could play piano recitals, perhapsthe prospect is not entirely bleak for all…The added years endow us with the possibility of new experience differentin quality from that of previous life stages but no less rewarding. We cansee the extra time as a plus, now a minus…The most fundamental qualitative difference between the last chapter andthe previous chapters lies in the meaning of the future to the person. Iremember a December day not long before my 65th birthday when arealization swept over me that I no longer had a future to look ahead toand plan for. Ever since childhood I had been constantly lookingahead…As an author I had been planning my next book as soon as thecurrent manuscript was completed… At 65, facing retirement, thisorientation toward the future no longer seems appropriate. Could I learnto look at life from a different point of view?The shift from future to present orientation had a tremendous liberatingeffect. Each day was to be lived for its own sake rather than as apreparation for days to come… It is now twelve years since thisreorientation occurred, and one might conclude that as things turned outit was a great mistake, because I did have a future after all. During thisperiod I have written two books and several chapters for edited volumes,lectured is half a dozen countries…would it have been better for me tocontinue living in and planning for future? I do not think so. The feelingof freedom was facilitated, not hindered the work I have done…The troubles that come with advancing age are many and cannot be ignored,but there are rewards also, and it is these I have been attempting todelineate. They are worth the price one must pay for the addition of anextra chapter to the book of one’s life. I am grateful for the gift of days.
RX for Elder Health - Humor, Environment, Movement(Mar. 8, 2002, Cupertino, CA). At Sunny View Retirement Community,sponsored by the Center for Gerontology, Spirituality and Faith.Beneficial effects of humor and laughter on healing, plus attention tomodalities such as music, meditation, and massage. Healing through plantsand creation of sacred space. Presenters: Joshua Sickel, M.D.(apathologist at El Camino Hospital); Allyson Rickard, and Vivian Silva(dance with frail elders).To register: 408-253-4300 ext.67; or email [email protected]
On the web at: http://www.spirituality4aging.org
Vital Aging Summit (Mar. 26, 2002, St. Paul, MN).Conference with national leaders and Minnesota role models to talk aboutshaping a new societal vision of what it means to grow old. Nationalpresenters include: Connie Goldman, Marc Freedman, Ron Manheimer,and Ed Creagan. Earle Brown Center of the Univ. Of Minnesota. Forregistration call Kay Syme, 612-624-4938 or [email protected]
United Nations (UN) Second World Assembly on Ageing.Madrid, Spain, April 8 - 12, 2002
Call to: United Nations - New York: Tel. 212-963-5855, or visit the website: www.un.org/esa/socdev/ageing
If you have material you wish to offer to newsletter readers, please write to Mary Gergen at [email protected]