4 Mindsets for Fulfillment as You Age

You need these four mental resources for your "psychological portfolio."

Posted Jun 19, 2020

Image by Nick Youngson, picpedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: Image by Nick Youngson, picpedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Because many people think of old age as a bleak time of life, it can be hard to wrap your mind around the idea that the later years really are the “golden years.” As aging expert Laura Carstensen writes in A Long Bright Future, “Research shows over and over that most older people are happier than the twenty-somethings who are assumed to be in the prime of life. People over the age of 65 have the most stable and optimistic outlook of all adults.”

But there is no doubt that getting older also brings difficult choices and challenges.  What mental attitudes can help you navigate the typical transitions of aging and weather the inevitable losses that accompany getting older?

Four Mental Resources

Counseling psychologist Nancy Schlossberg describes three key psychological resources that must be cultivated and reshaped as you move into the retirement years. They are identity, relationships, and purpose. In her book Revitalizing Retirement, she calls these resources your "psychological portfolio."

Your psychological portfolio. What a great way to think about all the helpful attitudes and mental habits you've accumulated over a lifetime! In this blog post, I’ll suggest ways to beef up that psychological portfolio. Along with identity, relationships, and purpose, I'll describe one more resource that can bolster the three others as well as provide satisfaction on its own: the self-care mindset.

Knowing your identity and purpose, valuing your key relationships, and staying strong with self-care are important at any age. For "olders,"* these mindsets can assume special prominence when enormous changes in work life, such as retirement, and personal life, such as the death of a spouse, can occur all at once.  

Moreover, cultivating these mindsets takes place as older people face the end of life. This literal “deadline” means that spending time in ways that bring meaning, fulfillment, and pleasure becomes more important than ever. (“Death awareness” can be a great motivator and could almost be considered a necessary mindset in itself.) 

Here are the four mindsets, along with suggestions for strengthening them:

Identity

Your identity is who you are—your evolving sense of self that you carry with you always.  Schlossberg further describes it as "what you do, your personality characteristics, and even how you see the world."

Like many people in our society, you may find that your sense of self is tightly connected to your work identity. Who are you if you are not a “doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief?” If retired, how do you respond when others ask, “And what do you do?”

Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Don’t retire. If you love your work, keep working. As Margaret Mead said, “Sooner or later I’m going to die, but I’m not going to retire.”
  2. Build your identity on hobbies and healthy pleasures rather than on work.
  3. Formulate a retirement “elevator message.” The brief message could include what you did before, what you do now, and your plans for the future. (More specifics on the how-to can be found here.)
  4. Proudly announce your new roles, for example, your role as a grandparent or volunteer.
  5. Recall childhood dreams, and figure out how you still might fulfill them, even in some small way.
  6. See a career counselor, coach, therapist, or someone who specializes in retirement issues. Such people can often discern your "superpowers."
  7. Find a new career. Set up “information interviews” with people who are doing what you might like to do, whether that’s volunteer work or paid work.

Relationships

An acquaintance once remarked to a close friend of mine that she was lucky to have such wonderful and enduring friendships. She replied, “Luck has nothing to do with it.”

In other words, if you want good relationships, you need to make a deliberate decision to reach out to others and connect in some way—whether in person, via greeting cards, or with video calls.

Strong relationships bolster mental and physical health at any age. Some researchers even find that healthy relationships might be the single most important predictor of happiness in older ages.

These suggestions could give you ideas:

  1. Take communication skills classes.
  2. Cultivate positive emotions. Such emotions as gratitude, hope, appreciation, and empathy will keep you attuned to “the sunny side of life.”  
  3. Create new communities, actual or online, to substitute for your former work communities. I was glad to see that Schlossberg included coffee groups as a possible community, since my partner has expanded his social circle in this very way. Other support groups might include writers' groups, birthday groups, gardening groups, and political groups.
  4. Appreciate your family and strengthen family ties. As friends go off in different directions, your family may assume more importance than ever. Apps such as FaceTime and Zoom make regular family “visits” easy and rewarding.
  5. Support your partner's dreams and vice versa. This suggestion by Schlossberg is too often forgotten. You and your significant other can become a "mutual admiration society."

Purpose

More and more research points to a sense of purpose as a key ingredient of a happy, fulfilling life for older people. The amazing physical and psychological benefits include a lower risk of premature death, healthier habits, higher levels of happiness, better sleep, and less loneliness.   

Your purpose and your identity are closely linked. Ideally, a purpose project will actualize at least some of your most cherished values and goals. (More details here.)

To clarify your purpose, try these suggestions, many from Schlossberg's work:

  1. Analyze your regrets and figure out a way to bring those missing pieces into your life.
  2. Decide your focus. Are you drawn to creativity, leadership, service, working, family, learning, or leisure? I’m always glad to see a goal like “leisure” on someone’s list, because not everyone has to have a high-sounding purpose project. A former colleague’s motto for retirement is: "If it's not fun, I don't do it."
  3. Become a caregiver. Often this role is not an option. But many find that taking care of spouse, grandchildren, or friends in need is fulfilling work in itself, especially if you balance it with self-care and other activities that bolster your own identity as well.
  4. Brainstorm and write down as many activities, small or large, that you might enjoy, and star the top three. Does this give you any ideas?

Self-Care

To act on your decisions about identity, purpose, and relationships, you need physical and mental strength. That’s why devoting time to appreciating and taking care of yourself is essential. In fact, as you age, having a positive relationship with yourself can be just as important as having a positive relationship with others. Try a few of these ideas:

  1. Practice self-compassion and kind self-talk. If you feel guilty or ashamed about a time when you were not your best self, use self-compassion to put your actions into better perspective. Possible self-talk: “I was going through a hard time back then.” “That was something I needed to work on, and I did.” "I did the best I could do with a hard situation."
  2. Exercise. I preach the gospel of exercise because it strengthens your body, invigorates your mind, and uplifts your spirits, among many, many other benefits.
  3. Rest, relax, and get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Build these three restorative practices into your life.
  4. Build self-confidence. Taking time to notice and savor the positive things you do for yourself and others every day will build self-esteem. I refer not to grand successes but to the small successes you might not notice without a little mindfulness. Try this Daily Success Review.

Summary

How will you reshape your identity, purpose, relationships, and self-care program in the last three decades of your life? Consider two or three scenarios that appeal to you. Then make a deliberate decision to improve your “psychological portfolio.” Finally, make a plan. A specific plan will highlight your path to a happier future—at any age.

© Meg Selig, 2020. All rights reserved.

*The wonderful term "olders" was coined by Ashton Applewhite in her book, This Chair Rocks.

References

Schlossberg, N. Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose (2010). APA: Washington, D.C.

Carstensen, L.  A Long Bright Future. NY: Broadway Books.