positive psychology

The Benefits of Positive Psychology and Mindfulness for Older Adults

Under few circumstances does ‘bad’ triumph over ‘good.’ The human brain is one of those circumstances. That is, people are naturally hard-wired to focus on the negative things that happen. Studies show that negative events will have a greater impact on an individual than similar positive ones. Although the bias toward negative events may sound dooming, the good news is that there are evidence-based activities in positive psychology and mindfulness that one can use to overcome it and live happier lives.

Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment by maintaining a heightened awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations without judgement.  It originates in Buddhist meditation practices but has been extended to incorporate aspects of other mind-body activities such as controlled breathing and yoga.  Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The two are different but closely related as many positive psychology interventions--activities designed to intentionally increase positive feelings and behaviors--often include mindful practices.

Mindfulness is particularly beneficial to older adults as age-related losses such as physical impairments or ailments, the death of a partner, increased dependence on others and financial decline leave older adults more susceptible to the loss of happiness and decline in wellbeing. Such losses contribute to depression in older adults. Because the symptoms of depression in older adults may be atypical to the common symptoms of depression and are likely to co-occur with illness, depression may be undiagnosed and therefore, untreated.

Studies show that positive psychology can alleviate depressive symptoms and increase overall well being, particularly in older adults. However, the benefits of mindfulness are by no means limited to treating depressive symptoms. Mindfulness activities are believed to have many healing powers including reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and strengthening the immune system and physiological response to stressors.  These benefits make mindful practices a good preventative measure when incorporated into one’s lifestyle and a good well-being booster. Although mindful practices cannot guarantee improved health, and are in no way a substitute for formal medical advice, mindful practices can be therapeutic in conjunction with a medical regimen prescribed by a physician. For example, mindfulness has been effectively used to help treat anxiety, nausea and insomnia in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (insert citation here – or hyperlink). Older adults who are undergoing physically taxing medical treatment may improve their quality of life with the coping techniques that can be acquired through mindfulness.

 So how does it work? Mindfulness heightens one’s attention to what they are experiencing in the current moment. This increased awareness helps people identify what they are feeling both physically and emotionally regardless of whether if it is good or bad. Making a habit ofidentifying how one is feeling can help one identify things that trigger those feelings, making it possible to intentionally seek, avoid or mentally prepare for an encounter with a trigger. Since mindfulness emphasizes non-judgment, it helps people accept what they are experiencing. In other words, mindfulness can be a helpful tool in experience management and an effective coping strategy.  Similarly, positive psychology interventions are intended to shift one’s focus from negative life experiences to positive ones—a mission that works intentionally to overcome human bias toward negative events.  Positive psychology interventions may include activities like writing down good things that happen over the course of a day or intentionally committing acts of kindness. Combined, positive psychology and mindfulness can help older adults learn to adapt to age-related changes and cultivate positive experiences.

With age comes loss and the need to cope with and adapt to change.  Older adults can benefit tremendously from interventions like positive psychology and mindfulness designed to help them cope with these challenges. Older adults deserve the peace of mind that can be achieved by focusing on what is happening in the moment and highlighting the good things that happen in life.

By Kenya Wright