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With age comes resilience and optimism, despite physical and cognitive declines

February 9, 2022 - 7 min read

We grow more resilient and optimistic as we age

 

People feel paralyzed by uncertainty these days. For many, the future has never seemed so unpredictable. And the once reliable indicators of the past no longer seem to apply anymore. The good news is that we can draw comfort from research that shows people become more resilient and optimistic with age. 

Despite enduring life’s challenges, many elderly people seem to be more at peace and happier than those even a fraction of their age. Problems don’t seem to rattle them in the same way they do younger people. They see opportunities where others see challenges. And they focus on the good instead of the bad.

Is there something to this? As we age, are we somehow able to  tap into a reservoir of good feelings? Do we build mental toughness as we overcome life’s obstacles?

Through a market survey of 1,500+ U.S. workers focused on identifying the mindsets of people who successfully cope with uncertainty and change, BetterUp Labs uncovered links between resilience, optimism, and age.

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What the data say:

Our data revealed that both men and women grow more resilient as they age. 

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The rate at which we grow in resilience actually increases the older we get, with the most growth happening between the ages of 54 and 64.

In spite of, or more accurately, because of facing and overcoming the challenges of life, we develop stronger resilience skills over time. Our experience over the years gives us a better sense of perspective as we encounter difficult situations. In fact, being forced to question who we are and build back new is a critical part of healthy development. 

Psychologists call this “positive disintegration” and it’s brought on by seismic restructuring events. Facing disappointment and adversity can actually build resilience. As we face setbacks over and over again, we learn each time and take greater risks because we gain confidence that we can recover from failure.

Closely related to this is our sense of optimism.

Our level of optimism remains daily consistent over most of our lives. Interestingly though, we see a sharp increase in optimism between the ages of 55 and 64.

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This is known as the paradox of aging. As our physical and cognitive abilities decline, our mood and sense of well-being increase right up until the end of our lives.

One reason for this is that as we gain more experience in life, we pursue more emotionally meaningful goals. We also shift our attention towards maintaining and deepening our relationships with others, which is positively associated with life satisfaction.

Why this matters:

The world seems scary and uncertain to a lot of people right now. We know from our research that 49% of us say that planning for their future feels impossible. Faced with this kind of uncertainty and paralysis, it can be helpful to know that the resilience and optimism of older generations is indicative of our ability as humans to adapt and handle what life throws at us.

We don’t need to wait until we are advanced in age to develop and benefit from the qualities of resilience and optimism. Both of these skills can be developed at any age and can greatly improve our lives now.

  • Resilience:

    In addition to helping us cope with adversity, people high in resilience scored 22% higher in innovation than their peers, as well as 19% higher in cognitive flexibility and 18% higher in team creativity.

    Resilience is also a skill that can be boosted by professional coaching. BetterUp members see a 125% increase in resilience with just 3-4 months of coaching. Even throughout the pandemic, our members grew in resilience by 17%. 

    And resilience serves as a powerful counterweight for mentally and physically damaging emotions. Our data reveals that members coached in resilience building see burnout decreased by 19%  and stress decreased by 24%.

  • Optimism:

    Optimism is so much more than simply seeing the world through rose colored glasses. It can actually lengthen and improve the quality of our lives.

    Research reveals that people with high optimism enjoy 11-15% longer lifespans. Optimistic people have better health and a lower chance of disease. The latest research shows that they have a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of early death. They also have lower stress levels, sleep better, and have lower levels of anxiety and depression.

    The best part? Optimism can be learned and we can even cultivate it in others. Even if we are naturally more pessimistic in nature, learning new skills like reframing our thoughts can help us change our mental behavior. Yet again, professional coaching has been demonstrated to help people improve in this regard. BetterUp members that start out with low on optimism see a 68% increase in just 3-4 months of coaching.

There are no shortcuts for gaining life experience and the wisdom that comes with it. But with focused effort, we can strengthen our resilience and benefit from an optimistic mindset no matter what age we are. 

Even what seem like huge events on the world or personal stage rarely destroy us. As we make it through twists, turns and even complete upheaval, we develop a more balanced and nuanced outlook on life.

With proven outcomes like increased lifespans and sharp reductions in chronic ailments, investing in personal growth is the highest ROI activity we could possibly engage in. And with training from a professional coach, we can accelerate our development and build these skills right now.

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Published February 9, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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