My late grandmother left a lasting impression on me.

From the toys she collected to entertain my siblings and me when we visited as children; to the hours she spent watching the puppet shows, plays and keyboard concerts we organized at our home and hers; to the time she took to remember us every year on birthday and holidays; to the interest she showed in our lives via letters she wrote when we were in college. These thoughtful gestures and more have stayed with me like a warm hug long after she departed this world.

What really has had lasting power with me, however, was her positive outlook on life. Grandma had many serious health issues later in life, but she persevered into her late 90s. The doctors once told my parents they believed that her attitude had helped her thrive.

Her perspective was innate, and one I hope to emulate, but a new study is trying to determine whether resilience can be cultivated in older adults so that even more people may come to see the benefits that my grandmother realized.

Belmont Village Senior Living is working with researchers at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Healthy Aging and the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging to test the effectiveness of group sessions and other activities — setting goals, discussing perceptions of aging, and keeping a “happiness journal” in which they record at least one thing that makes them happy and one thing that makes them proud every day — in promoting resilience among independent living residents in seven communities.

The two-year study started in 2017 and was expanded in April. The research is expected to be completed by the end of this year, with key findings published next year.

“We are looking to see how aging can be a positive experience in spite of physical difficulties or the normal stressful events that occur over time. All to prove that you can, under the right circumstances, without drugs or medications, improve overall well-being,” said Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., director and senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care director at the UCSD Center for Healthy Aging.

I am looking forward to learning the results, already buoyed by other recent research that shows the power of positive thinking.

In August, for instance, a study published in Age and Ageing, the scientific journal of the British Geriatrics Society, found that an increase in happiness is directly proportional with a reduction in mortality. Simply put, happy older adults live longer.

Researchers at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore used data for 4,478 survey participants aged 60 or more years to look at the association between happiness, assessed in 2009, and subsequent likelihood of dying due to any cause, until the end of 2015. Happiness was assessed by asking participants how often in the past week they had “felt happy,” “enjoyed life” and “felt hope about the future.”

The likelihood of dying due to any cause was 19% lower for happy older adults. Further, the inverse association of happiness with mortality was consistently present among those aged 60 to 79 years as well as those aged 75 or more years.

“The consistency of the inverse association of happiness with mortality across age groups and gender is insightful — men and women, the young-old and the old-old, all are likely to benefit from an increase in happiness,” said June May-Ling Lee, a co-author of the paper.

Activities, policies and programs that maintain or improve happiness may be beneficial for a longer life among older adults, according to Lee and her colleagues.

And earlier this month, a review paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that maintaining positive thoughts and feelings through intervention programs can help patients have better overall outcomes when it comes to their cardiovascular health.

“Optimists persevere by using problem-solving and planning strategies to manage stressors,” said Darwin R. Labarthe, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the review’s lead author.

Strong social support networks, intervention programs and mindfulness efforts, which sometimes include yoga or tai chi, can be helpful, too, the researchers said.

In the case of physicians, Labarthe said, “It may seem challenging to help patients modify psychological well-being in the face of a new medical diagnosis, but these events can represent a ‘teachable moment.’ Just having patient-centered discussions surrounding sources of psychological well-being and information about specific activities to promote well-being are a small, but meaningful, part of a patient’s care.”

Why wait? Let’s all spread some happiness.

Related Articles