7/12/2022 | By Megan Mullen

Do life experiences, both good and bad, change is? Does the process of aging change us? Do our attitudes become more positive or negative as we age? We examine the question and present an for making positive change.

If you know curmudgeonly, negative elderly man, do you assume that aging made him so – and that aging will do the same to the rest of us? If you know a granny who is as sweet as honey and optimistic as Pollyanna, do you likewise credit aging? The truth is that older adults, like the rest of us, represent a range of attitudes, from negative to positive.

Do life’s stumbling blocks result in negative attitudes?

That depends!

One study showed that Holocaust survivors thrived, despite the horrors they had experienced. When compared with European Jews of the same age who came to the United States before World War II, the survivors “had, on average, less education, [but] their careers were more successful and their incomes greater. They were also far more likely to do volunteer community service and to be altruistic in outlook.”

The results of that study resonated with Dr. Eva Kahana, co-author of another study on Holocaust survivors. As a child during World War II, she hid with her mother in Hungary. “The war put into perspective for me what’s really important in life: connectedness to other people and giving.”

The results aren’t always so clear cut, though. Many survivors came out shattered. The same study found that “the survivors were more lonely, felt they had a lot to be sad about and found that life was hard most of the time. Close to two-thirds of the survivors said they got upset easily, more than half said they worried so much they had trouble sleeping, and a third said they felt afraid of many things.”

Some Holocaust survivors said their successes mask inner struggles and post-traumatic stress-type problems, including anxiety at the sight of someone in uniform, at a knock at the door, at barking dogs.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, in a study of Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, noted that many distanced themselves from their earlier trauma through “psychic numbing.” This could be viewed as a positive adaptation – or as a symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

A study of Holocaust survivors led by Dr. Rachel Yehuda noted biological changes in the survivors who show symptoms of PTSD, including elevated levels of norepinephrine, a stress hormone. Similar results were found in Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

How do pain, chronic illness, and hormone changes affect our attitudes?

Our bodies tend to present new health challenges as we age: Whether it’s the chronic joint pain of osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, or diminished eyesight or hearing, most of us ask ourselves, “What happened to my younger, healthier self?”

Hormones also shift as we age, often changing how we feel physically and emotionally. Endocrine system glands throughout the body produce chemical signals or hormones essential to maintaining balance (homeostasis). Hormone-driven metabolic changes, like menopause in women and diminishing testosterone levels in men, can affect our emotions, weight, energy levels, sex drive, and other aspects of everyday life and routines. So these shifts can affect physical comfort and emotional well-being – and hence our attitudes.

Related: Are you an optimist? You just might live longer!

5 strategies for cultivating optimism

What about loss, loneliness, disappointment, and depression?

sad senior man. Photo by Monkey Business Images, Dreamstime. Do experience and aging change us? Do attitudes become more positive or negative? We examine questions and present a suggestion for change.

We inevitably lose friends and relatives throughout our lives, but as we age, so do our peers – and death of those we know becomes more common. A departure from our lives often brings feelings of loneliness and reminds us of our own mortality. However, we can only mourn for so long before rallying our remaining friends and loved ones and moving forward. Our passing can wait!

Consider a psychosocial intervention involving patients with heart disease. Researchers observed that those with partners and enjoying more significant amounts of social support were less likely to die from the illness than those without partners and with less social support. This effect was noticeable even after controlling for treatment type and other factors, such as age and overall health status.

Like people of other ages, seniors experience peer pressure, too. Years of commercial home entertainment have taught our society to “keep up with the Joneses.” Yet even those who recognize the deception still may internalize what they see on their screens. Funny, isn’t it, that we saw so few poor people, people of color, and other “invisible” groups represented in the media for decades? How much positivity can this upend?

Although one study found that people are happiest, with the most positive attitudes, between the ages of 55 and 70, researchers also recognize that they included groups of mainly middle-class white people – well educated, financially secure and with fulfilling work histories. They found that, compared to younger people of similar socioeconomic statuses, the elders seemed to fare much better. But when seniors are in vulnerable situations, as many are – without stable housing, facing continual stressors, and possibly coping with pain – they are more likely to struggle to survive.

Moreover, as anyone from any socioeconomic background gets older, they perceive less and less time remaining in their lives. So, many value emotional goals, perhaps choosing to spend more time with family and friends than trying to meet new people.

Related: The 6 best apps for loneliness

‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’

With a musical career starting in the early 1960s, the iconic Bob Dylan promptly integrated social issues like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement into his repertoire. Dylan is still going strong in his 80s, performing in clubs, benefiting from newer digital technologies, and experimenting with his traditional music and performance styles.

Many other aging adults have similarly adapted to the times, enjoying and benefiting from contemporary technologies.

Which introduces perhaps the most operative word: “adaptation.”

Susan Turk Charles, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, advises,

For people who are unhappy, it’s really important to look at how to structure your days to feel more fulfilled. I guess for everyone I would say: When you’re making a list of health behaviors, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating right are important factors that most people agree should be included, but social relationships is something that is as important as your cholesterol level, yet is often forgotten. Make sure that you spend time cultivating your social ties, treasuring and prioritizing your close friends and family members, at whatever age you are. Finding purpose and meaning in life is also vitally important. What that is can be different for different people, but finding an important purpose and following that can be very emotionally gratifying.

Related: 10 tips to develop positivity and joy

Megan Mullen

Megan Mullen is a freelance writer, librarian, and former college professor. Senior life is one of her niches (and a personal interest). Megan enjoys using her writing and research skills to create well-crafted web content and other publications.