Building wellbeing resilience in organisations and their communities

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article Dr Lucy Hone looks at wellbeing and resilience.

As a 50-year-old woman it’s easy to contemplate what life might be like in 20 years’ time for someone over 65. That’ll be me. Actually, easy is not the correct word. I couldn’t have contemplated what life might be like for me as a 50-year-old even five years ago, let alone 20 years. None of us have a crystal ball, thank goodness.

What I do know, however, what experience and academic research has taught me, is that the best way to live well at any age is to be flexible. By that, I don’t mean flexible in a yogi kind of way (although at 50 I am much more familiar with yoga than my 45-year-old runner-self would ever have considered possible). Instead I am referring to psychological and behavioural flexibility, both of which lie at the core of the human capacity for resilience.

I have spent the last 10 years researching the concept of resilience — that fuzzy, much quoted word that has somehow become the zeitgeist of our time. Living through the Christchurch quakes and the tragic, sudden loss of our 12-year-old daughter, Abi, four years ago, I have also been forced to be resilient on a daily basis, learning to adapt to, and live with, constant change, unforeseen challenges and profound grief. I regard resilience as the human capacity to adapt to change, drawing on a wide range of different abilities, processes, strengths and core beliefs to steer through obstacles and adversity, and even grow from these experiences, however unwanted. Ageing is just another one of those experiences.

I applaud the Minister for Seniors for starting a national conversation around Positive Ageing, challenging New Zealanders to consider how they want to live as they grow older. I’m going to ponder that question from a personal perspective, informed by my academic knowledge of the subject (I have a Master’s degree and a PhD in wellbeing/resilience psychology). I am not an expert on ageing, but I can claim to understand the dynamics and processes involved in adapting to whatever life throws at us. And ageing (or death, inevitably) will happen to all of us. (And reflecting on my daughter’s death at 12-years-old, I consider it a privilege to experience old age, even with its challenges.)

First and foremost I want to be self-determined. In using that term I am referring to the well-respected Self Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan), which suggests humans have three fundamental needs: for competence, autonomy and relatedness. In other words, people have a basic need to feel they are competent (that their skills are valued, that they can contribute and continue to master new things), that they can exert some control over the way they live their lives, and, above all else, they want to be connected. Meeting these three needs will be important for ageing well. I want to remain independent, to be the master of my fate for as long as I can, to be gainfully employed using my skills and strengths in purposeful and meaningful ways, to be recognised as someone with a contribution to make, to spend time with those I love, and to leave this world a better place.

We can find echoes of the three aspects of self-determination among Bronnie Ware’s Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Years spent as a palliative care nurse developing close relationships with dying people meant Ware had many raw and honest conversations with her patients. Summarising their thoughts in an online article that swept the world in 2011, Ware shared their biggest regrets: I wish I’d lived a life true to myself, not the life other people expected of me; I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings; I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends; and, I wish I’d allowed myself to be happier. This is a chilling reminder to get our priorities right as we age.

We also know from reams of research that ‘realistic optimism’ is a key ingredient for ageing well. Optimists live longer than pessimists, they are better able to cope with stress, receive greater social support, experience increased relationship satisfaction and have better physical health. Optimism is now one of the most highly researched topics in wellbeing science. We know we can train even the most die-hard pessimists to become aware of their overly pessimistic thoughts and to challenge the merit and accuracy of those thoughts. It’s not easy, but can be done.

Finally, I want to contemplate the phrase ‘Positive Ageing’ and draw New Zealanders’ attention to what that does, and does not, mean. Back in the year 1998, when Marty Seligman became the President of the American Psychological Association, he congratulated his colleagues (clinicians and researchers) on their success in identifying and treating at least 14 mental disorders that were untreatable 50 years earlier. However, he also criticised them for their “scant knowledge of what makes life worth living”. In their singular obsession with pathology, they had neglected the positive side of human functioning, he said, failing to research the elements of individual thriving and community flourishing.

Seligman called for “a reoriented science that emphasizes the understanding and building of the most positive qualities of an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future‑mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, and social responsibility”. He called this ‘Positive Psychology’.

The word ‘positive’ does not imply that we should be aiming for a constant state of happiness and positivity. In fact, Positive Psychology is very much focused on helping individuals cope with the inevitable bad times and events in life by identifying effective ways to cope with trauma, stress and adversity. Positive Psychology investigates wellbeing and resilience whereas traditional psychology focuses on identifying and treating mental illness.

While traditional psychology helps individuals move from minus five back up to zero, Positive Psychology focuses on how to move from zero to plus five, keeping us functioning on the positive side of the mental health balance sheet. Positive Ageing should be regarded in the same light. The phrase ‘Positive Ageing’ does not imply we are imagining a future where we will all be skipping around without a care in the world. Instead it refers to a society where older people can feel good and function well. That means a society where older people are recognised as an integral part of families and communities, where their contribution is highly valued, where they have opportunities to use the skills and strengths they have gained over a lifetime, and continue to develop meaningful passions that are personal to them.

That’s the kind of society I want to age in, not one that is overly focused on weakness, that pathologises me and the burden my age group places on the economy. It is up to all of us to work out how to live effectively with an ageing population, and to harness it for good, not assign it to the scrap heap.

Dr Lucy Hone is the Director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience