Change is inevitable and happens constantly. Nature itself is temporary, always shifting and changing. Plants and animals come and go, living and dying, often in short life spans.
Yet nature is also perennial, constantly renewing itself. From the decaying compost of last year come this year’s vibrant vegetables. The life span of most birds is short, but earth is never bereft of birdsong. Renewal co-exists with decline.
Similarly, researchers have found that positive and negative emotions co-exist in individuals, making them more resilient to the inevitable losses of life. While resilient people experience sorrow and the pangs of loss, they also are able to continue to experience life’s joys and positive emotions.
As we age we inevitably lose the easy health most of us had as young people.
By the time we are in our elder years, we have seen the deaths of loved ones, including parents and perhaps spouses. We have changed residences, neighborhoods, perhaps even states and countries. We have watched our children change from helpless, adoring toddlers to adults who do not always agree with us. As we age we inevitably lose the easy health most of us had as young people. We must work harder simply to maintain. Prescriptions multiply, as do doctor visits. We do more to stay functional and independent even as we lose ground. We have, in short, accrued significant losses.
All this can be a recipe for depression in the elderly, and depression is all too usual among seniors. Researcher David Haber said that depression is the most common emotional lament of the elderly. Depression is not inevitable, however, even after significant changes and losses.
Professor George A. Bonnano of Columbia University notes that most people who are exposed to adverse life events, such as bereavement or a life-threatening event or condition, continue functioning at stable levels. They seem to “bounce back” with resiliency. He points out that 50% of bereaved spouses, for example, experience no depression, and this is not due to the fact that they had marital difficulties or that they are emotionally cold. It is, Bonnano asserts, because they are emotionally resilient.
A significant part of resiliency, Bonnano asserts, is that even great loss does not blot out positive emotions. Resilient people can laugh; they can smile; they can experience gratitude, love, and bond with other people even during times of bereavement.
Resilience helps us cope with change, even unwelcome change. We develop a certain strength. Hardy people are able to believe that negative and positive life experiences can teach us a great deal; they tend to find meaningful purpose in their lives, which is not taken away by adverse events. They also believe they can “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them,” as Hamlet said. That is, they believe they can effectively influence what is around them and help fashion the outcomes of events.
Are these resilient people the lucky few or, in reality, the lucky majority, while the rest of us flounder in our emotional lives? Not at all. If experiencing positive emotions in the midst of loss and setback is a key to resiliency, we can all cultivate positive emotions by training ourselves to interpret life’s lessons in meaningful, ultimately positive ways. We can cultivate gratitude so that even the worst day is not bereft of sunshine. We can choose to appreciate and cultivate humor. We can experience love, the ultimate positive emotion, even as we grieve the loss of a loved one.
No matter who we are with, where we are, or what state of physical health we are in, we can attempt to make our emotional world welcome the positive as well as the negative. Thus, we insulate ourselves against the depression that might claim us as life’s losses unfold.
Bonnano, G. A. (2004). Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events? Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. American Psychologist, 59(1): 20-28. Available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.20.
Haber, David. (2006). Life Review: Implementation, Theory, Research, and Therapy. International Journal on Aging and Human Development, 63(2), 153-171. http://jshellman-reminiscence.wiki.uml.edu/file/view/Haber_LR_Rem_200.pdf.
Ong, A.D., Bergeman, C.S., Bisconti, T. (2004). The Role of Daily Positive Emotions During Conjugal Bereavement. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B., The Oxford Journals, Medicine and Health and Social Sciences. 59(4): 168-176. Available online at http://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/59/4/P168.full.
Ong, A., Bergeman, C.S., Bisconti, T., Wallace, K. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptations to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91(4):730-749. DoiI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240.