Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time with my mother, my godmother, relatives, and friends who are reaching the end of life. I often wonder what I can do to contribute to their greater well-being. When I’m with them, I also feel like I’m rehearsing for my own future. What can I learn and do now that will increase my well-being through the last years of my life?
Building on the concepts of Narrative Therapy, I suspect that helping older people retell their stories can be an effective way to contribute to their subjective well-being. According to Alice Morgan, “The stories we have about our lives are created through linking certain events together in a particular sequence across a time period, and finding a way of explaining or making sense of them. This meaning forms the plot of the story. We give meanings to our experiences constantly as we live our lives. A narrative is like a thread that weaves the events together, forming a story.”
Looking backward is different from looking forward. Psychologist Dov Shmotkin, a professor at Tel Aviv University, comments, “Expectations about the overwhelming impact of adversity are commonplace and lead people to grossly underestimate their future happiness.” In contrast, looking back at earlier suffering can bring pride and meaning that one was able to find the way through the adversity. For example, take my mother’s memories of life right after my father died, leaving her with three preschool-aged children. Notice the sharpness of detail, as well as the juxtaposition of her feisty pride looking back and her mother’s dread looking forward.
“The skipper directed them to climb, and they climbed as fast as they could. He made a fast bank. He was the first to get to 35,000 feet, and he went on the radio to the skipper and said, “I bet you wish you had my plane.” Then he went into a dive, and he couldn’t pull out. He was in the midst of doing what he liked to do, but it was a shocker. Those idiots called me on the phone to tell me he had been killed. I couldn’t believe that. I fussed about it, I tell you.
After he was killed, I went to library school at Columbia to get my degree. My mother got in the car and helped me drive from Idaho to New York and take care of the kids while I found an apartment. One day we were invited to visit friends. When we started to go in, Kathie was asleep in the car. Mother said, “I’ll just sit here with her.” She told me later she was sitting there in the Village and saw kids playing in the street. “I just wept, thinking my grandchildren would grow up like this.” ~ Irene
Paradox of Well-Being in the Oldest Old
In Poon and Cohen-Mansfield’s book, the period called oldest old starts at age 75, but for the people in my circle, 85 has been the turning point when energy and activity tend to plummet. My mother and godmother, good friends for nearly 80 years, traveled to India and Iran between ages 75 and 80, and my godmother went on a Grand Canyon rafting trip at 82. Just a little later, their worlds started to shrink, just as I described in an earlier article: trips to Europe replaced trips to the outback, then trips across country to see family, then trips to the farmer’s market, now trips to the dining room. Both experienced increasing weariness, but they viewed it very differently. My mother keeps saying that she is not good for much, while my godmother said she enjoyed reaching a stage in life when she could sit at the table and read the NY Times all morning without anyone else depending on her.Subjective well-being (SWB) is a person’s personal assessment about his or her own life. It includes a cognitive factor termed life satisfaction that is a summary judgment of the quality of life as a whole. It also includes two emotional aspects that reflect the frequency of positive emotions and negative emotions over time.
Shmotkin points out a paradox: the oldest old have reached a point where there is little time in front of them and they have many physical limitations. Yet by and large, they aren’t unhappier than the rest of us. He cites a number of studies in the United States that show negative affect remaining stable or even going down in this period of life, while positive affect either remains stable or increases.
I take these results with a grain of salt. Diener and Suh suggest caution when interpreting the results of various studies of age and SWB, pointing out that the results are inconsistent and are often done with small convenience samples. There are also differences in measurement among the studies of the three factors that may explain some of the inconsistencies. For example, the World Value Survey that showed positive affect going down in later years used a particular measurement that only registers high arousal emotions. As people get older, they are more likely to experience low arousal emotions such as contentment than high arousal emotions such as joy.Diener and Suh also ask a question that seems very relevant to me, “Might it be that people in different objective conditions have different standards and expectations, and therefore might be equally satisfied?” Haim Hazan suggests that the very language used by researchers to analyze well-being is shaped by the issues and anxieties relevant to midlife, such as continuity, goals, success, and meaning. Since most researchers are in the middle of their lives, these are the concerns most relevant to them, but perhaps not so relevant to people approaching the end of life.
So how do we step out of our age-limited understanding of well-being to understand how life is experienced in a stage that we’ve never experienced ourselves?
Shmotkin suggests that people may adapt to old age by adjusting their aspirations, using complimentary social comparisons, and restraining their emotional reactivity. He also points out that across age groups, “Most people report high levels of happiness for themselves while simultaneously judging other people to be more imbued by distress than by happiness.” That might be another reason why younger people expect older people to be unhappier than they are.Where Does Storytelling Fit into Subjective Well-being?
Shmotkin identifies 4 modules that characterize different aspects of SWB in time and space. These may give us clues about how SWB adjusts in oldest old age.
- Experiential—the private domain of self-awareness: what we tell ourselves
- Declarative—the public domain: what we tell others
- Differential—the varying experience of different aspects of SWB (positive affect, negative affect, life satisfaction) in the moment, which may vary over the life span. Shmotkin cites McKennell’s findings that younger adults tend to feel higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of satisfaction, while older adults feel lower levels of positive affect and higher levels of satisfaction
- Narrative—the trajectory of the life story over time. This encompasses the impact of the accumulation of experiences, how they relate to each other, and how they affect the person’s judgment about the quality of his or her life.
People who are very old have a lot of experiences to ponder—a long past and a short future. Shmotkin argues that a perceived congruence of the past—becoming reconciled to negative events and enjoying memories of positive events—is positively associated with present SWB. The following story that Jesse Posey tells about his childhood during the Great Depression demonstrates the effect of memories on perceptions of the present, illustrating the words of poet Robert Pollock, “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.”
“Our house was just a framed building with no insulation and the winters were really cold. I would walk along the tracks looking for coal that had fallen off of a coal car and sometimes a hobo would toss coal off.
Kimberly had a dance hall called “Shadowland” and several name bands played there. After a dance I would get up early the next morning and walk around the building and hunt for beer bottles which I could sell. Once in a while I would find some change or even a bill. I sold the Saturday Evening Post and the Grit magazines and mowed lawns with a really hard to push reel mower with a grass catcher. The money earned was turned over to my mother to help buy groceries.
It was a hard life but I think it was a good time to be growing up. I’m sure it made us appreciate anything that we were able to obtain later in life.” ~ Jesse Posey
According to Shmotkin, the oldest old tend to remember the past more favorably and with more satisfaction than do younger people. Young people tend to view the present as more satisfying than the past and the future as more satisfying still, but the oldest old tend to view the past as more satisfying than either the present or future. By telling their stories, either orally or in writing, older people spend time with the more satisfying parts of their lives.
The stories they tell can enhance our understanding of remote events. The memoirs that my godmother wrote about her childhood have enhanced my understanding of the Great Depression. Here’s the story of the way she lost her milk money.
“I remember my mother taking me out on the front porch one evening that fall to show me the northern lights dancing across the sky. She told me that seeing the Aurora Borealis at our latitude was a serious omen. And she was quite right. This was 1929, the year of the crash of the stock market. Our house faced US Highway 30, a national road stretching across the United States. We began to see lonely men walking west in search of work. Often one would stop, offering to work in exchange for a meal. Mother always gave them food, which they would eat sitting on the backdoor steps.
My first awareness of the seriousness of what happened was when my father told me that the Filer bank had closed and my money there was gone. I had a keen appreciation of money. For one thing, I was bribed 5 cents a day to drink three glasses of milk (which I did by holding my breath and gulping). My father faithfully gave me a nickel after dinner every night, which I promptly pushed into a little bronze bank shaped like the Liberty Bell. When it was full, he would take me to the local bank where his banker friend took out a special key to open it, the coins were then given to the teller, who wrote the sum in a little book and returned to me the little book and the empty liberty bell. Being told that all of this had now disappeared, I looked to my father to make amends. Sensing an opportunity to introduce me to the harsh realities of life, he told me to let this be a lesson to me: not to trust banks. My immediate reaction was to stop trusting my father, but I have indeed had a lifelong wariness of banks.” ~ Marian
Not everyone is moved to write things down. My siblings and I hired a life historian to interview our mother, primarily because we thought it might lift her mood to think about the things she’d accomplished and the hardships she had overcome. I believe it helped her gain a sense that she had earned a chance to nap after meals and spend all morning reading the NY Times. I turned the transcripts into a book with family pictures that she occasionally looks through with pleasure. I got this idea from a friend who had a life historian interview her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s syndrome. With his daughter sitting beside him, he could reconstruct some narratives of his experience, even if sometimes he lost the thread.
A friend whose father just died wrote me, “Last year we did a lot of collaborative work on his autobiography, which I am gradually publishing on-line.” I submit that participating in the retelling of life stories is one way that younger friends and relatives can support and prolong the well-being of the oldest old.
Oh, and what about rehearsing for my own future? I’m starting to work on my own memoirs in order to have lots of things I can look back on with satisfaction!
Author’s note: This article is published on Memorial Day in the United States in loving memory of my godmother, who died last year right after Memorial Day. To Marian, with love. When I finish writing my memoirs, I hope they are one tenth as interesting as yours.
Britton, K. H. (2011). A beautiful life ends beautifully. Positive Psychology Reflections. Note: This includes a letter written by my godmother to my daughter, a fantastic reach across the generations.
Britton, K. H. (2010). Finding meaning in a shrinking world. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Britton, K. H. (2008). Gratitude from growing up in the Depression years. Positive Psychology Reflections. This has a longer extract from Jesse Posey’s memories of his childhood during the Depression.
Diener, E. & Suh, M. E. (1997). Subjective well-being and age: An international analysis. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 17, 304-321.
Duvivier, C. (2012). Boost success and passion: Tell a better story. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Hazan, H. (2011). From ageless self to selfless age: Toward a theoretical turn in gerontological understanding. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old (pp. 11.26). Cambridge University Press.
Morgan, A. (2000). What Is Narrative Therapy? (Gecko 2000). Gecko Press.
Poon, L. & Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2011). Toward new directions in the study of well-being among the oldest old. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old, (pp. 3-10). Cambridge University Press.
Shmotkin, D. (2011). The pursuit of happiness: Alternative conceptions of subjective well-being. In L. W. Poon & J. Cohen-Mansfield, Understanding Well-Being in the Oldest Old (pp. 27-45). Cambridge University Press.
Shmotkin, D. (2005). Happiness in the face of adversity: Reformulating the dynamic
and modular bases of subjective well-being. Review of General Psychology, 9 (4), 291–325.
Story time courtesy of Tim Ellis
A man who loved to fly courtesy of Kathryn Britton
Forever Young courtesy of dirkmvp41
Touching Hands courtesy of Gabriela Pinto
grandpa chips reading a story to nick courtesy of Sean Dreilinger
Brave war hero rings in his 100th birthday courtesy of stev.ie
Looking at a copy of Annie’s latest book courtesy of Andrew Muller
Edited by Natasha Utevsky