Jennifer Smith, Ph.D., Mather Lifeways

It’s amazing what a difference a positive mindset can have on older adults’ resilience and well-being. I recently heard from a woman who is struggling with pain and loss of mobility due to knee problems. Instead of dwelling on the negative changes in her life and difficulties associated with rehab, she focuses on how good it will be to be able to return to activities that she used to enjoy, such as biking and simply moving more easily. She draws strength by thinking about other obstacles she has been able to successfully overcome. This positive mindset gives her a hopeful view of the future and her ability to recovery from knee replacement surgery.

This woman increased her mood and optimism by savoring positive experiences — she savored imagining how much her life will improve once the surgery and rehab is complete, and she savored through inspiration from times when she responded resiliently in the past. Savoring is about drawing the most enjoyment and meaning from positive experiences in our lives; it is the ability to be aware of positive experiences and harness our appreciation of those experiences to enhance our positive feelings.

A key part of savoring is positive mindfulness. You can help your residents savor by drawing their attention to positive experiences that are happening around them. Encourage them to think about and appreciate what’s special, unique, meaningful, or enjoyable about these experiences and pay attention to how these experiences make them feel.

My recent research shows that those older adults with a greater ability to savor positive experiences tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. The most immediate benefit of savoring positive experiences is an increase in happiness, which is important because there’s a strong body of research on the benefits of happiness. Happier people tend to have better physical health. Happiness is associated with higher functioning immune systems, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and greater longevity. People who are happier typically experience better psychological well-being, including lower depression, anxiety, and stress. Happiness is also related to greater social support and stronger relationships—and strengthening mental, physical, social, and emotional resources can help prepare older adults to respond resiliently when they encounter challenges in life (like a knee replacement).

Taking time to savor positive experiences is important for our well-being and the well-being of older adults in our care. As part of a larger study on savoring and health, we recently administered a survey to 267 older adults. They were asked to complete measures of their health, their ability to savor positive experiences, and their satisfaction in life. Our research found that those who reported a higher ability to savor positive experiences tended to report better health. In addition, older adults with higher savoring abilities displayed greater psychological resilience—they reported high satisfaction with life even when their health was poor.

As the Dalai Lama wisely stated, “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” We can take control of our happiness by intentionally savoring positive experiences.

Savoring is important for people of all ages. Here are three activities that you can use in your personal life or with older adults who you serve to increase their happiness and well-being.

  • Find the positive. The purpose of this activity is to practice shifting our attention from the negative to the positive things around us. Encourage your residents to take a 15- to 20-minute walk and notice as many positive things as they can (e.g., flowers, artwork). For each positive thing, try to identify what makes it so pleasurable or meaningful. This activity can be adapted to fit the needs of your residents. For instance, people could observe positive things from one location, such as a garden. Residents could also participate as a group, and share and discuss the positive things they find.

  • Replace negative self-talk. Stopping negative thoughts in their tracks is just as important to savoring as increasing positive thoughts. When you hear residents complaining or focusing on negative things, mention events and other good things that are happening in the community or in the resident’s life. Try to shift the conversation to a more positive topic. Another way to combat kill-joy thoughts is to take a few moments to do something kind for another person.

  • Write gratitude letters. Gratitude increases people’s awareness of good things in their life and enhances their appreciation of them. Writing a gratitude letter is an excellent opportunity for people to reflect on and appreciate positive experiences in their lives. Ask the residents to think of someone who has made a positive impact in their life, and write that person a letter to thank them for their support. One option is that residents and staff could write gratitude letters to each other.

These activities are just a few of the ways that you can help your residents savor positive experiences instead of having these experiences overshadowed by negative events. Savoring positive experiences can lead to greater happiness and help older adults build a set of mental, emotional, physical, and social resources that will enhance their resilience during stressful and challenging events.

Jennifer L. Smith is a senior research manager at Mather LifeWays Insititute on Aging. She is a nationally recognized expert on savoring and happiness.