BOOK INTERVIEW – Some people seem to be authentically positive—optimistic, uplifting to be around, at peace with themselves—even though they may have, like all of us, lived through deeply challenging or hurtful experiences. We call them courageous. We marvel at their resilience. We love to be around them for the strength and personal power they exude. We’d like some of the secret sauce they’ve been seasoning their life with. They’re not in denial about their troubles, but they’re also not beaten by them. They seem to have truly accepted “what is” and yet they don’t accept that this is the end of the road for them. They know that life is precious, keep their focus on what’s working and good, and feel appreciation for all they have. And they know themselves. They know what they want, and they put their energy into having it, whether in a quiet, unassuming way or with a loud passion that can easily be seen and heard. They live fully, fiercely, and in the moment, realizing it’s all they really have. As a result, they feel vital and connected, and live happy, meaningful lives.
This is our goal. People aren’t born this way (although some may be blessed with the upbringing that support resilience and positivity) and they aren’t magically transformed by some genie they meet while they’re out walking the dog, waiting for the bus, or taking out the trash. If you sat down and talked to them about their approach to life, you would almost certainly hear how hard they have worked at becoming who they are.
With or without the blessings of a relatively beneficent childhood, all of us have to work at the task of becoming people we admire and having a life we love. Some of us may have to work a little harder than others, but this is an achievable goal for everyone. Instead of letting our strengths become eroded by the stresses of life—or fortifying ourselves behind a wall in an attempt to keep the stresses out—we need to create a relationship with life that allows its flow to move through us rather than tear us down.
This is what I will call realistic positivity,a mindset that helps us to grow better as we grow older and to create a life we truly love.
Realistic Positivity: What Does It Mean?
You may have heard the term realistic optimism, first used by positive psychologist and thought leader Martin Seligman and now also used by others to mean “the ability to look realistically at what is, as well as what is possible, and choose a perspective that enhances one’s ability to make the best of the moment and bring one’s best to life.” Thus a realistic optimist is viewed as “someone who looks on the bright side of life but has a realistic grasp on the present and what to expect in life.” It tends to be a pushback against “Pollyanna optimism”—a “view of life that expects positive outcomes without regard for the options or the odds.”
While I agree with this thinking in large part, I don’t want us to exaggerate our limitations or the obstacles we face or to underestimate our own capabilities. There is truly so much we are capable of—at any age—if we know how to go about it. Thankfully, science is validating this more and more every year, giving us exciting news about the seemingly unlimited potential of the human brain and body.
So, I’ll be making a few distinctions between the existing term and my own, by going deeper and into the specifics of what I mean by each of the two parts of the equation: “realistic” and “positivity.” For now, let me give you the quick version: Realistic positivity means seeing and accepting what is now—both in our inner and outer worlds—and then putting our focus on what we would love.
How many times have you heard the phrase you have to be realistic! “Realistic” is a slippery word, often a matter of perspectives and beliefs rather than facts. For example, when hearing about our weight-loss goals, even a good friend may ask us to be realistic,while at the same time we believe in our ability to get the result we desire. They are speaking for themselves, perhaps—what they believe to be true about them—but that doesn’t mean what they believe is impossible for them will also be impossible for us.
The truth is that with the right know-how and application, most results—if they stem from our heart and are thus fueled by passion and joy—can be achieved. Not so sure? Just ask anyone who, driven by a true passion or love, has done what others believed to be impossible. Tao Porchon-Lynch is one example. At 98, she is the world’s oldest yoga teacher. As of this writing, she teaches yoga classes most days of the week, travels nationally and internationally giving workshops and participating in retreats, and can still do many of the challenging yoga poses she mastered in her youth.
You might argue that that’s not so unrealistic, given that Tao has been conditioning her body to do yoga for ninety years, since the age of eight. While I’ll grant you that, it doesn’t explain away the achievements of other older athletes who have accomplished seemingly unrealistic things after starting well into their elder years—people like Fauja Singh, who ran his first marathon at 89 years of age and who today, at 106, is still at it.
Being realistic starts with recognizing and understanding factual reality—which can be a real challenge, as scientists and experts of all kinds are continuously making new discoveries and gaining new understandings about the intricacies of how the universe, and how we as part of it, work. Yet, this knowledge is key to our effectiveness in creating meaningful change.
Excerpted with permission of PESI Publishing & Media, from Mindful Aging ©2017.