Privilege Blog

Is Positivity What We Want While Aging, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:28am

This morning, another thought about aging.. How many of you follow The Gerontologist on Instagram? Recommended. A mix of videos of undaunted elders living with very high function, advice on caregiving for dementia, occasional references to positivity, and Bible passages. I find the dementia advice particularly healing, having spent so much time with my mother in her last three years of advancing and then very advanced Alzheimer’s.

And yet, a caveat.

Well, a question. How do you all feel about “positivity?” Do images of things being Very Okay make you feel, in fact, okay? Do videos of older women who can bench press 120 pounds make you feel hopeful about your future strength? When exhorted to “think positive,” do you put your head down, your smile up, and forge on?

You can probably tell where I’m going. My personal perspective, shared by some of you, I know, is that sharing complaints with a  friend can be just cheering as the great-grandmother who can still run a marathon. In my case, more so, as shin splints have made running a misery for me ever since 1976 when I tried it and gave up.

And let’s hear it for all the 80 year olds who like to sit on sofas and eat marshmallows. Which is not to say I endorse that as a life strategy. I’m as health conscious as the next person, she says as the organic beans call her to from the cupboard, asking to be put into the Instant Pot as soon as possible.

Only that for some of us, happiness, contentment, all those deeply desired and strongly cherished states of being human, are much more easily arrived at when we don’t deny pain. When we call our sister or our friend and complain about the weird twinges in our feet. What? Now the tops of my feet hurt too? Good lord. When we kvetch about how nobody organizes things as well as we do. When we are allowed to confess our distress both large and small. And then we laugh, or cry, and let me just speak for myself, are very glad to be alive.

Then is it enough, for happiness in aging, just to be glad we’re alive? No need to jump out of an airplane, or surf, or make homemade ravioli from a recipe our nonnas showed us late one night as olives fell to the ground around us?

Drat. I don’t quite think so. No skydiving or perfect pasta required, maybe, but, at least if you’re me, you might worry if that privilege will end tomorrow for reasons as yet unknown. So I think to enjoy our Fourth Quarter, our Time of Old, or whatever we want to call it, we might need to feel optimistic about our future. Or, if optimistic isn’t possible, no shame, then hopeful. And if not hopeful, for which I am so terribly sorry, then at least, somehow, and this is where some of the Eastern religions can inform the practice, at peace.

Does peace have to be simple? I sure hope not. I’m terrible at simple, unless it is vast. For some people, complaining is peaceful. I’m going to hope that peace, internal peace, may in fact be dynamic. Like storm systems: comes and goes and so on. Not a still state. Even breath has to move.

It’s been raining a lot here this past week. Now out my window drops of rain glisten on blades of grass. Vast is subjective.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. Or a really crabby one that makes you laugh, at least eventually. I’ll be thinking of you.


28 Responses

  1. Oh I want to be cranky! I want to be allowed to get older without getting fitter or having plastic surgery or coloring my hair. I want the messages to be that it’s OK to look your age and that although it is a good idea to stay as active as possible, we don’t all have to bench press 120.

    I want to be cranky. I want to be happy with my friends that we are still here but also talk about our feet! our necks! (OMG our necks when did that happen?) everything hurts! gray hair rocks! grandchildren in any form are awesome!

    I want to be cranky with other happily cranky people.

    1. Who will, I know, be funny and high energy and opinionated and happily cranky. The happiness between the cranks is extra good:)

  2. Oh great. Another article out there to fire up the at-large Positivity Police. One little chirp amis, and here comes a chorus of “You should be more positive!”

    You come sit by me, Texan In Exile. I’m sure the combined force of our personalities would define positivity, based on the laughter coming from our end of the bench. What’s more “positive” than laughter? [We win!]

    1. Laughter is one of the most positive things we can experience! I’ve been thinking since I wrote this, I do understand that for some people the crankiness of others threatens their own good cheer. Understandable, but I come back to the idea that we can hope to maintain our own good mood, to a point, without requiring a happy chorus around us.

  3. Noticing and railing against pains, limitations, just plain things we dislike is healthy. It’s recognition. It’s a sharper lens than positivity and gives us a starting point for our lives from here on out. Whether we laugh (yes please), skydive (oh, Deity, please no), eat healthier (with pasta and chocolate as needed!), see our friends more, learn Hungarian — we wouldn’t know what we wanted if we’d been numbly positive in the first place.

    Positivity is creepy. It’s a lie, too, because if everything’s great then we haven’t accomplished anything. We haven’t endured, we haven’t mastered anything, we haven’t formed opinions or dreams. Knee-jerk positivity smothers joy.

    1. Ah, Maria, exactly this! The sharper lens. The numbly positive. It’s a question of being able to fully inhabit, as you say, what we are feeling and navigate.

  4. Love this! As one who considers herself a realist, forced positivity sticks in my craw! As with all times of life, there is good and there is bad. Yes, let’s do all we can to stay in shape and be as sharp as we can, but toxic positivity needs to go. Thanks for this post!

    1. You are welcome! Let’s do all we can and sometimes lie on the floor and groan, “I can no more!” And then perhaps laugh at ourselves and be glad to be alive.

  5. Clearly I’m hanging out in the right crowd. Overall I have an optimistic outlook on life. But I learned long ago that having a positive attitude doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to you. Resilience counts for more than Pollyannaish optimism. When I faced difficulties my internal mantra was “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. Acknowledging difficulties, not just papering over them, helps me to appreciate all the good things in life.

    1. Yes. One can be optimistic and yet acknowledge that some times are very hard. I learned pretty late about the bad things and was quite thrown for a loop. Finding my way back to more optimistic than not has been quite a task and I had to learn to acknowledge that as much as the original difficulties.

  6. I think I am getting the hang of waking up every morning with yet another ache in some other part of my body. Really, it is so much work just to maintain and I just want to relax! Wishing you a happy Easter.

    1. When does the tip from “getting fitter” to “just staying in place” happen, I wonder. Because I’m there. Which is OK! Happy Easter! And so much chocolate if you’re in the mood!

  7. Carl Reiner did a wonderful movie around 2017 titled (something like) If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. I don’t think it is toxic positivity, but it does make a great case for gratitude. And – Iris Apfel makes an appearance. Anyone who is cranky after watching it and wants to say, “bah! positivity!!” can rightly observe that most of the people Reiner talked to are dead. But not Dick Van Dyke and not Jerry Seinfeld. On Prime Video, I think.

    Thank you as always, Lisa

    1. You’re welcome:). When things are really bad it’s so hard to find any chance at gratitude. I remember after my mother was finally safe in a good place, that first Christmas after her fall, I looked around the table and realized I’d felt nothing for months. Into my gray consciousness crept a little happiness. Gratitude didn’t come for another few months. But it did.

      I’ll look for the movie. In advance, my cranky self says, “I’d like to see something like this interviewing people who are not wildly talented, lucky, famous and rich…” How do we regular people make conscious space and time for feelings of peace, gratitude, hope, even joy.

  8. Such a great essay and I agree. I don’t like that most of my life has been lived. I know that’s not a popular thing to say – but I think it’s at the core of all complaints about aging. At least it is for me.

  9. This is something I’ve been mulling over recently, because:
    1. some people are massive downers to be around, and sometimes people don’t have the energy for that (because they are already tired, because they are also struggling with depression, because they feel like they have to “fix” things, because they only want secondary characters in their life to be amusing/positive; lots of options)
    2. a book group I am in [I’m disabled with a chronic illness but middle-aged; the book group is more 70+] is against people talking about things going wrong, broadly speaking, but especially people in their age group talking about health complaints (although some are “no talk about any non-cancer-grade health complaints!” and others are more “health complaints are fine as long as that’s not the *majority* conversation topic”)
    but also
    3. I’m in a support group of Weird Chronic Illness people and a lot of what we talk about is health and the absurdities and symptoms, but also this is The Place we all have to talk with other people who 100% get it and can cheer on (“I was able to [do thing that is a normal, unremarkable, everyday occurrence for 90% of the population]!”) and groan with (“So, specialist type A said they can’t help me, and I’d need to see a specialist type B… who then said they can’t help, and what I really need is a specialist type A.”). *But* also we are not unrelentingly negative about it? And we’re not competitive about it (actually, I think everyone basically thinks that everyone else has it worse, because it’s all well within the region that most middle-aged or younger people tend to gasp with shock and horror that anyone is dealing with that level of stuff on a daily basis, *but* we’re each used to and have adjustments to work around “our” base things whereas other peoples’ would require drastically different mental and lifestyle adjustments, and also there are things like kids/no kids and varying levels of other complicating factors?).

    So in part, I think it might be less what you do and more how you do it, who it’s with, and what other things you’re bringing to the table along with the depressing/distressing parts? And also just plain how much the person you’re talking with can cope with, on top of what they’re already coping with, and whether what you share adds a lot to their load or doesn’t. (like friends who have had traumatic miscarriages have a *hard* time hearing about others facing down that situation because it has emotional activation for them, but if I hear about it, with zero wanting-of-kids and zero miscarriage experience, it is a Sad Thing For Them and yes, I get more sad when my friends are having a hard time, but it just really isn’t the same as when it does tap into a fear or experience that brings up severe negative emotions?)

    But also, sharing Minor But Annoying Ailments results in learning about things that have worked for others, which is itself valuable! There are a lot of things we’d never guess are connected, and lots of things that there *is* actually One Easy Fix for, whether that’s strengthening a muscle somewhere else that you’d never have guessed was related, or swapping lotions, or trying a week off from one inflammatory food, and the way you learn about those things is in community, mostly, with a side of medical advice sometimes. (but community has more lifestyle hacks than any given doctor, especially for the “little” things doctors shrug off as aging; not all age-linked symptoms are actually inevitable!)

    Anyway. Making sure you throw in a side of hope or funny when the main “what’s going on” is dismal, maybe? And choosing your audience. But not 100% “still above the ground so I can’t complain” – YES you can complain and it is good to complain *sometimes* but maybe: how much, how, when. Maybe it is a more nuanced thing where you need to figure out what brings you down vs. lifts you up and what brings others down vs. lifts them up, and maybe it is partly a Balanced Diet thing where denial leaves you short on something important? (and toxic positivity can bring people down faster than an Aches And Pains Bulletin, sometimes!) How to balance all that plus realism about the world as it is so we can maybe do something about The Bad Stuff in the world as well: I don’t know.

    1. Having written this yesterday, and continued to think about it all, I came to where you are. I mean, if we care about others, we want to be aware of who has capacity to consider the bleak in any given moment and who does not. And to be aware of who is suffering so much that they cannot possibly maintain the good cheer you might need for your wellbeing. And to know those who can sustain your own depths of despair as well as heights of joy.

      One thing I’ve learned from grief counseling is that if someone is suffering beyond possible comfort, if you can only listen to them, and remember that your presence is enough, it can be possible to hear more of the bleak than otherwise. I should add, the peer group counseling I do involves less “counseling,” and more simple witnessing, and that is not nothing. Our simple beings can be of comfort to others.

      Maybe that’s where I’d start. That “positivity” actually lives in caring, responsive interactions more than any specific communicated mood. And we can only do what we can do.

      1. Thank you! That’s excellent – and concise – framing and direction. (concise is… not my strong suit)

  10. Hi, Lisa and others. Thank you for writing about this. To answer your initial question simply and not as eloquently as previous responders, no, those kinds of videos and accounts and websites and articles do not make me “feel okay.” I am 72, with serious health issues over which I have no control. It is a painful, uncertain, and terrifying place to live. The avalanche in social media, indeed all media, showing my contemporaries who appear to have the whole world in their hands and are Living Large! through their advancing age all seem to grow from the same root: the arrogant and false assumption that we are in control of what happens to us. All this assumption does is add to the “aloneness” of those who know otherwise. I would like to see equal time in media dedicated to topics recognizing the fact that for a large number of people, growing older (i.e., coming nearer to one’s death–there, I said it), the “adventures” of this age are not necessarily of the skydiving/pickleball/world travel type. The overgrowth of insistent positivity in our culture (is it like this in other world cultures?) does not serve to inspire. I hope I didn’t stray too far off topic. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    1. Linda, thank you so much for sharing how you feel. All of it. This is the topic. And there are adventures to be had that are nothing like skydiving or pickleball, for better or worse. We’re in control of so much, and yet so much remains way out of our control, and the public conversation should allow both those things to be openly true.

  11. I am not moved by images and stories of anonymous (to me) elders bench pressing or marathoning. I am however moved by non-anonymous elders. I show up for artists, authors, musicians who are older than me (65) and working, creating, performing, and by that alone (not by talking about Positivity) offering an example of possibility. Laurie Anderson is creating new work, very involved in AI, performing new and old work, and inspires by that, not by telling anyone anything about their life path. Her encore from a show I saw last month was to get the auditorium up on their feet to do Tai Chi. I was amused. I also think that the emphasis on productivity, like you can’t retire without a plan for what productive enterprise will fill that space, is pernicious. My cats and sofa agree.

    1. I love the image of a whole audience doing Tai Chi. I also love the idea of supporting older artists. They are an example of possibility, and also sometimes witnesses to loss and grief and joy and rage in ways unique to our later lives. Tell your cats and sofa they’re spot on;).

  12. Aging comes with many bumps in the road. Living a healthy lifestyle, engaging with others and having a great primary care doctor are basic ingredients for living and aging well. Science can facilitate healthy aging and this is where the medical community becomes important. Accessing good care is critical.

    1. I agree. Even when we have resources for health care, health care often doesn’t have resources for us. The scarcity of primary care doctors is a real problem, and without them, access is tricky.

  13. It’s important for people to have a safe place to vent, to share grief, and so on. I also have a blog but my posts are mostly to a small group of trusted readers. But recently I wrote a few public posts about grief. Someone commented that it was good for others to see death and grief discussed openly. It is so taboo to talk about losing someone, especially to cancer. It doesn’t fit the warrior narrative, the War against Cancer. Being confronted by the evidence that sometimes treatment fails is uncomfortable.

    I like Mary Oliver’s brand of positivity: very centered on being in nature, and awareness of its beauty as a path to being in the world. She never says don’t be sad, don’t grieve the losses when they inevitably come. She reminds us that when we are ready, life will be waiting. I read her poetry nearly every day. It helps.

Comments are closed.