Positive in life, one day at a time

We met him in the dungeon-like parking lot of a Seattle hotel garage. He was a large, youngish, African-American man wearing a bleached-white shirt, a narrow tie and an over-sized, yellow caution vest.

He was trying mightily to assist late-arriving hotel guests find parking spaces in the way-too-small garage. We were the last to back into a tight spot that blocked another car. It meant we would be leaving very early the next morning.

"No worries," he said as he punched the elevator button for us and chatted while we waited. His hotel name tag provided his title, "Eternal Optimist." When I asked about it, he offered, "A few years ago, I decided I had a choice every morning when I woke up — was I going to be positive and happy that day or not? Every day when I get out of bed and make the decision to be positive "… things go much easier."

He's right. Some people refer to it as "the positivity effect." But it usually starts later in life.

In 2003, experts led by psychology professor Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford University Center for Longevity and author of a recently published book, "A Long Bright Future," examined the phenomena that "life improves with age."

Their research supported the finding that troubling emotions linger less long as we get older. Studies looking closely at individual responses to negative images, memories and narratives found older people initially reported as much distress as younger people but those reactions evaporated more quickly.

The assumptions suggest it's related to "time horizons." Older people, who realize their time horizons are shorter, "tend to spend time on pursuits that matter most to them, which tend to make them happier."

Again and again in studies, older adults recall associations and events more positively and are less influenced by negative experiences, which positively benefits their overall mental health.

With a burgeoning aging population, this phenomenon just might make the world a better place. That last sentence is not researched-based, but it fits, don't you think?

Not for everyone, of course. Later-in-life depression is real. But if more of us, at whatever age, woke up every morning absolutely intent on putting forward positive energies throughout the entire day, think what might happen. Ever the realist, I recognize my suggestion may not work in your situation. Your sad and blue aging spouse still needs to see his health provider and actively explore medication and therapy options. Your aging neighbor who does not get out of her house enough still needs your regular visits. (Bring a smile.)

And "the positivity effect" has other consequences. There can be circumstances where negative information may be critically important and inclinations to focus exclusively on the positive may put us at risk. I'm thinking about financial scams offered over the phone or salespeople who come to our homes with expensive products for purchase.

As a getting-older-every-day person, I'm choosing to remember the eternally optimistic young man in the parking garage and deciding, "No worries, one day at a time."

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com

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