Is the Cup Half Empty or Half Full?

How you view life events matters!

In a previous newsletter, we talked about having a positive outlook. We discussed the value of having a purpose, keeping a gratitude journal, and using positive self-talk - all of which are helpful when you want to age well. Yet, I am finding that underlying factors play a role - factors like explanatory style and mindset. Let me explain.

Psychologists use the term "explanatory style" to describe how people explain the events of their lives. So, one possible underlying factor is whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. In other words, do you see the cup as half empty or half-full? Take a look at the differences.

People with an optimistic explanatory style see the best in difficult situations and maintain a hopeful view. When you have hope and look forward to another day, you are more likely to keep going and better tolerate adversity.

Optimists don’t waste time looking for people to blame, nor do they make excuses or deny the specifics of an issue. They look for solutions based on facts. Being optimistic doesn't mean ignoring life's troubles; it does mean looking for the good in situations, rather than focusing on the bad.

Click here, to read more about ways to develop a more optimistic explanatory style. For example, pay attention to what you say to yourself and others. Do you tend to imagine the worst possible outcome of an event?  Do you use the words “always” and “never” to describe temporary setbacks? Do you blame yourself for things outside your control?  Do you often feel helpless and hopeless? These thoughts and feelings aren’t necessarily true, but they are a result of the way you explain things to yourself and others.

A second way to develop a more optimistic explanatory style is to dispute your negative thoughts.  Find different explanations for events by focusing on changeable, specific, and non-personal possible causes. It’s like putting a picture in a different frame. . .  when you do the picture looks different.

Finally, you can interrupt a string of negative thoughts by saying “stop” and focusing on a different train of thought.  Do something positive like read a book or go to a movie, spend time outdoors or volunteer, for example.

People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to blame themselves for negative events. They believe these events will continue indefinitely and affect many aspects of their life. Pessimism isn't necessarily a conscious choice, though. While some people are genetically predisposed to be negative, others develop pessimism because of external circumstances like a job loss, injury, illness, or other trauma.

Recent research indicates that optimists and pessimists approach problems differently and their ability to cope with adversity differs as a result. So, the bottom line is that the lens through which you view the world influences how you see it . . . and how you see the aging process.

As people get older, they can be pessimistic and discouraged by the challenges of aging or they can be optimistic about the new advances in disease prevention and health-management.

 Three encouraging notions come to mind. First, negative thinking is common. Second, how people handle their thoughts either drains excitement from life or builds excitement into it. You can’t remain negative and be your best self. So, understanding negative thoughts and reframing them into more positive ones allows you to take steps toward aging well. Finally, if you aren’t presently an optimist; no worries! Optimism can be learned. It’s not whether the glass is half full or half empty, after all; it’s about knowing how to fill it and doing so.

Another underlying factor may be your mindset - the set of beliefs that shape how you make sense of the world and yourself. It influences how you think, feel, and behave in a given situation. Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests there are two types of mindset: fixed and growth. Take a look at the differences.

Basically, a fixed mindset prevents you from failing in the short–run, but in the long–run it hinders your ability to learn, grow, and develop new skills. You tend to believe you are who you are and that can’t change.

A growth mindset allows you to maximize your potential. You believe you can improve with effort because you are willing to embrace challenges and treat them as opportunities to learn something new.

Common sense would suggest that having ability, like being smart, inspires confidence. It does, but only while the going is easy. The deciding factor in life is how you handle setbacks and challenges. People with a growth mindset welcome setback with open arms.

There will be setbacks and challenges as you age well; so it would be helpful to know how to handle them.

Want to develop a growth mindset? Well, then, be passionate, take action, go the extra mile, expect positive results, and be flexible. Oh, and, don’t complain when things aren’t going your way.

Dweck suggests 10 ways to develop a growth mindset, click here to learn more. Basically, though, she suggests that you take the time to acknowledge, reflect, and embrace failures and determine your purpose. She recommends that you take on challenges rather than running from them which requires a great deal of grit and courage. Two other ideas she offers are to integrate the word “yet” into your vocabulary; it allows you to have hope in the future and jot down your goals. Her final set of guidelines are change your attitude, seek constructive feedback, practice mindfulness, and appreciate the journey.

There is a long list of potential challenges facing seniors, from the inability to conduct activities of daily living to elder abuse. So, it seems that if you know what the challenges are, have a growth mindset, and a plan for managing the challenges, then you can be more optimistic about life. Being optimistic about life allows you to be more grateful, to identify and pursue your purpose, and to use self-talk that supports you. Take a look at Rosa’s journey for ideas.

 Rosa is a 76-year-old widow, whose goals for the rest of her life are to age well, contribute, and be independent. Basically, though, her mindset has become quite fixed. She sees insurmountable problems rather than challenges, lets a perceived failure or something seen as too difficult stop her, and takes feedback as a personal attack.

She is somewhat pessimistic, stressed, teary, and irritable especially since her husband died. Her purpose for living, to take care of him, is gone.She tends to be self-critical and feels sorry for herself even though she has a lot to be grateful for.

So, if she wants to age well, contribute, and be independent changes must be made.

Rosa read a lot of articles and found the idea of a growth mindset appealing. That’s where she decided to start. She consciously chose to change her thinking, to keep trying even though she was frustrated, to rename the challenges as opportunities to grow, and to keep going even though she saw herself as failing. It took time and effort but she was able to change many of her old ways of thinking.

Those changes in thinking, eventually allowed her to be more optimistic and less stressed. When she was more optimistic and less stressed, she found more things to be grateful for, was able to identify a new purpose, and became less self-critical. Then, she found herself more willing to work on her goals of aging well, contributing, and being independent.

It may take more than keeping a gratitude journal, using self-talk, and having a purpose to age well. You may also want to identify your explanatory style and mindset. Ask yourself the question “Are they holding me back or helping me move forward?”