Can optimism be learned? And why should we want to?
A book out just last year and an article out just this week take our usual concept of old age by the lapels and straighten its assumptions. What they report are the possibilities being studied for not just a happy older age, its authors say, but for long life. Optimism may be a key to it.
The book is A LONG BRIGHT FUTURE (Random House, 2009). The author, Lisa Cartensen, Ph.D., is a 1978 alumna of the University of Rochester, now the director of the Center for Longevity at Stanford University. This month’s Rochester Review, a magazine published by the University of Rochester, takes a look at what she intends even in the title of its article about her work, “Live Fully; Retire at 85.”
Cartensen invokes the fact that in other times, the lifespan was vastly different. Add to that a current understanding that social considerations underlie the constructs that we ourselves impose on the lifespan. The result is a reframing: not only what you passively can expect but you actively might create in your later life.
These constructs include the usual timeframes that we have thought of traditionally for completing an education, marrying for the first time, and looming for the boomer generation, retiring. Even Social Security, to name one social construct—just look at its name to see that it is one—was designed with a shorter lifespan in mind. But what we do with the older years, Cartensen notes, doesn’t have to fit an outdated mold.
According to Cartensen, older people—those over 65—are stable and optimistic, even to the point of outstripping other age groups of adults in these categories. They resolve issues with others well, and they put a premium on genuine satisfaction in their relationships.
The article about optimism was reprinted in The Buffalo News on Tuesday, January 19, 2010. Written by Carolyn Butler and originally published in The Washington Post, it cites a study that concluded that optimism is associated with longer life. The trick here is understanding the word “associated.” When Cartensen says that those over 65 are stable and optimistic, is that description the horse or the cart? The term “associated with” connotes appearing in the same context or within certain preset parameters. But is one term causal and the other a result? Both authors struggle with this unanswered question.
A longitudinal study might help explain it, says Butler’s article. The journal Circulation, she notes, recently published a study that followed 97,000 women older than 50 for eight years. Heart disease as well as death by any cause had lower instances in optimists, the first by 9 percent and the second by 14 percent. Still, it is unclear what mediated the difference.
Can optimism be learned? Since studies show that those over 65 tend to be more optimistic, it would be constructive to gather even anecdotal evidence to test a hypothesis: Is it possible that optimism might be the outcome of experience or even what some call wisdom?
And for those interested in complementary and alternative medicine, what modes of healing might foster that optimism?