For the past several months I have been writing about the concept of “Successful Aging”, beginning with a brief overview of 9 “Habits of Successful Aging”. My subsequent posts have described and explained these habits in greater detail and suggested some avenues and options to more successfully include them in your lifestyle. This post's topic for discussion is “Be Positive”.

Kicking yourself up the assets

Taking an ‘asset-based’ or positive approach to life has been a cardinal focus in the growing field of Positive Psychology. This research has demonstrated time and again that viewing life in a positive way is a far cry from the shallow philosophy espoused by Stuart Smalley, late of Saturday Night Live ”I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

As long ago as the 1980’s, educational research out of Stanford analyzing teaching performance reported that an approach focusing and building on a teacher’s ‘assets’ (i.e. their strengths, and what they did well) promoted high quality learning, while an approach focusing on a teacher’s ‘deficits’ (i.e. their weakness, and correcting what they were doing ‘wrong’) was far less effective. This ‘deficit-based’ approach however is still out there not only in education, but also in health, wellness and even Successful Aging!

Back in 2000 when I was an assistant professor at Arizona State University, I authored a book chapter in a major publication called “The Handbook of Health Psychology”. The title of the chapter was “Effects of physical activity on physical and psychological health:  Implications for exercise adherence and psychophysiological mechanisms” (A pretty long and involved title I admit, but then this was a pretty long and involved book – I was actually Chapter 38 out of 51!). The reason I bring this up here is that in my research for writing this chapter I was struck by the fact that almost everything I found on ‘psychological health’ in the scientific literature was about ‘getting less bad’.

Some 10 years later I am still seeing and reading much the same thing. The rationale(s) for setting and achieving wellness goals such as ‘getting active’, ‘getting fit’, or ‘eating healthy’ are still too often stated in terms of either reducing your actual bad stuff (e.g. losing weight) or on reducing your risk of bad stuff (e.g. risk of dying). With just a moment’s thought you could probably come up with your own list of the usual ‘bad stuff’ culprits: obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, stress, depression, anxiety, risk of a heart attack, risk of a stroke, etc.

I suspect this is a consequence of our long acquaintance with the ‘Medical Model’ of health - uniquely designed to kick in and fix the ‘bad stuff’, but with no designs at all on improving the ’good stuff’. The result of this is that we tend to view our wellbeing more in terms of how bad we aren’t rather than how good we are. When we try to improve our wellness behaviors we tend to focus more on overcoming obstacles rather than achieving goals, to focus on what we are not ‘going to get’ rather on what we will ‘be getting’.

One of the best known hypotheses in the field of Successful Aging is “The Compression of Morbidity”. This refers to the idea that the period of sickness (morbidity) at the end of life may be reduced (compressed) by adopting healthier lifestyles. This hypothesis has received much attention in the field of gerontology, and as a professor I have spoken about, and referred to it myself on many occasions. With my ‘Thinking differently’ hat on however, I see that, although this hypothesis was clearly aimed at doing good, it actually represented the ’getting less bad’ approach. Not much asset-kicking going on here! There is an obvious dichotomy between “Successful Aging” – a positive, asset-based concept, and “The Compression of Morbidity” a negative, deficit-based concept. So reframing this from a ‘Be Positive’ perspective, instead of “Compression” – why not “Expansion”? Instead of “Morbidity” – why not “Mobility”? And so we have “The Expansion of Mobility”. In other words ‘being better, longer’ instead of ‘being worse, shorter’.  Think about it.

What I have learned over the years both as a scientist and Intrinsic Coach® is that focusing on the positive aspects of pursuing an active lifestyle will bring you a host of positive benefits – you’ll look better and feel better about your self and your life, be more alert, have more energy, clearer thinking, better quality of life, better sleep, more independence. And there’s more ….!

That old clichéd differentiation of people who either view ’the glass half empty or the glass half full’ reveals a pathway to some major (and positive!) consequences. You can learn to see the glass as ‘half full’ – you can learn to be optimistic! Check out Learned Optimism a landmark book by Dr. Martin Seligman, acknowledged as the founder of “Positive Psychology. The book is a decade old now but still relevant.

So as you think about the situations and goals in your life – what assets are kicking up for you?

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