Exploring Retirement

Welcome to the February 2015 edition of Exploring Retirement. Each month we feature articles on well-being in retirement. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, in his book "Flourish", set out what he considers the necessary "elements" for a flourishing life.

He suggests the acronym PERMA, which stands for -

  • Positive emotions

  • Engagement

  • Relationships

  • Meaning

  • Achievement

  • Over the next few months we will be considering each element in turn, in the context of retirement. We will start this month by looking at positive emotions, what they are, how they impact on our mental and physical health and how we might generate them more often.

    Also, this month, we are introducing a new feature were one of our active readers gets the chance to tell us about their life since they "retired"! We have called it Retirement: My Way. Do write and let us know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

    Writing team

    We have three regular contributors on our writing team. Here they are with a brief note explaining our principal areas of interest:

    John Copelton, EditorDr John Copelton - well-being in retirementMichael McSorley, contributorMichael McSorley - lively comment on sport and cultureJeannette Lewis, contributorJeannette Lewis - inspiring ideas on retirement living

    Positive Emotions in Retirement

    The unexamined life is not worth living - Socrates.

    Early research studies in the 1960's showed that negative emotions and positive emotions were separate constructs. The absence of negative emotions does not imply the presence of positive emotions. Positive emotions include feeling interested, enthusiastic, alert and excited. Negative emotions include feeling afraid, nervous, sad and irritable. Negative emotions tend to close down our thinking and the range of options we are prepared to consider.

    Negative emotions such as fear and anxiety have a clear protective effect when we are facing a dangerous situation. The benefits of positive emotions are not so obvious. To tackle this question, Professor Barbara Frederickson [1] developed her Broaden and Build theory, showing that positive emotions have a significant impact on the number of options we are able to consider, when we are presented with a new situation. This in turn encourages novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions which, over time, broaden our behavioural repertoire, allowing us to build our skills and resources. They also play an important role helping us to build our relationships.

    Positive emotions and health

    It has been known for some years that negative emotions, particularly those associated with stress such as anxiety and fear, have an impact on cardiovascular health. In a series of experiments, Barbara Frederickson demonstrated that experiencing positive emotions speeds cardiovascular recovery after a negative experience. Positive emotions help downregulate the potentially health-damaging cardiovascular reactivity that lingers following negative emotions. [2].

    Positive emotions have been relatively ignored in the health literature until recently. A review of the evidence suggests an association between positive emotions and lower illness generally, as well as decreased symptoms and pain. Positive emotions are also associated with increased longevity among community-dwelling elderly[3].

    Frequency versus intensity

    Given the importance attached to experiencing positive emotions, what can psychologists tell us about how to experience their benefits more often, and is there any limit to what can be achieved? Professor Ed Diener has shown that it is not the intensity of our experience of positive emotions that contributes to our overall well-being but the frequency with which we experience them. From a retirement perspective this tells us that we don't need to spend a fortune pursuing happiness but that well-being can be found in lots of little things like going for a walk in a beautiful park or meeting a friend for lunch.

    It is important at this point to distinguish between the frequency with which we experience positive emotions and the frequency with which we participate in activities designed to evoke positive emotions. The reason for making this distinction arises from another important research finding, that the more often we repeat a particular experience, the less likely we are to experience positive emotions as a result. This phenomenon is called "hedonic adaptation". On the face of it, hedonic adaptation seems to imply that our well-being is self limited. To some extent it is but we can get round it, if we try! Hedonic adaptation teaches us the importance of introducing variety into our activities, so that adaptation is less likely to take place.

    Negativity Bias

    Negativity bias is the name given by psychologists to our tendency to be more influenced by negative experiences, than neutral or positive experiences. Suppose you are out for a walk and pass three people you know. The first two smile and say hello but the third walks past you without acknowledging your existence. It will be the last one you worry about for the rest of the day - that's the negativity bias! Barbara Frederickson suggests that you need at least three or more positive experiences to counterbalance every negative experience. Hence the need to experience positive emotions frequently.

    The implications for a retirement lifestyle

    "Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting" - Herminia Ibarra: Possible Selves.

    Negative emotions evolved to drive us to take action in stressful circumstances. Positive emotions on the other hand, are the result of our actions. To have a flourishing retirement we need to have enough enjoyable activities happening in our lives so that we can experience positive emotions frequently, while at the same time being proactive in seeking out variety of experience and not letting ourselves get stuck in a comfortable rut!

    Interest is the positive emotion most people experience most often. As a starting point in trying to introduce more positive emotions into your life, try making a list of all the things that interest you (it's an interesting thing to do!). Think back over the past few weeks. What have been your most enjoyable experiences? Jeanette's article from the December 2014 issue "How Leisure Choices Affect Retirement Happiness" is well worth re-reading. Click here

    Here are some thoughts on introducing more positive emotions into your day.

  • Be proactive and plan the week ahead to have something to look forward to each day.
  • Be active. Go outdoors everyday. If it is raining, go for a swim!
  • Reflect on your retirement activities. If you aren't enjoying them, then stop doing them and try something else instead.
  • At the end of each day, take a few minutes to savour the good things that happened - this way you get to enjoy them all over again!
  • References

    [1] Frederickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

    [2] Frederickson, B.L. et al (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 237-258.

    [3] Cohen, S. and Pressman, S.D. (2005). Positive Affect and Health. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 6, 925-971.

    New Study: Understanding Society

    A major study in the UK called Understanding Society, allowed researchers based at the University of Glasgow to ask whether people who participate in cultural leisure activities have higher life satisfaction than people who do not. They found -

  • High life satisfaction was associated with engaging in a number of different activities rather than the frequency of participation in each of them (variety helps, hedonic adaptation hinders).
  • An independent and positive association for participation in sport, heritage and active-creative leisure activities and life satisfaction but not for participation in popular entertainment, theatre hobbies and museum/galleries (participation beats spectating).
  • The association of reading hobbies and sedentary-creative activities and life satisfaction was negative.
  • I don't think that we should conclude from this study that passive activities such as reading a good book or listening to music are bad for you! But a focus on purely sedentary activities is associated with poor mental health. Passive hobbies need to be balanced with those requiring more active participation.

    For a living example of how being active/proactive contributes to the frequent experience of positive emotions, do read the article, Retirement: My Way.

    Featured Activity: Silver Comedy

    Silver Comedy believe that a good laugh is good for more than the digestion! This social enterprise seeks to enrich the lives of older people through actively engaging them in comedy workshops and performances. Silver Comedy work with groups of older people and relevant organisations offering a mixture of interactive comedy games and improvised comedy drama supported by professional stand ups and comedy facilitators. The workshops aim to enhance older people's wellbeing, counteract loneliness, increase self confidence and develop comedy skills while also exercising memory.

    Interactive comedy engagement sessions usually last around two hours and generally take place over a morning or afternoon around a tea break. These sessions are regularly undertaken at community and day care centres, supported housing schemes and care homes. Wherever possible Silver Comedy like to actively involve staff and volunteers in these sessions. Group size at these sessions tend to vary in size from between around 10-40 participants. They also offer intergenerational workshops based on the same model.

    As George Baddeley, the Managing Director of Silver Comedy says "Comedy is a great way of engaging with people. If you can get to the inner mischief inside of them, you can bring people out of themselves". To get a better idea of what Silver Comedy is about, watch this short video.

    Retirement: My Way

    Retirement: My Way is a new addition to our magazine format. Each month we hope to feature individuals who are active in "retirement" and who have written to tell us about their experiences. We hope you will enjoy this new feature and that some of you will want to share your own experience of enjoying retirement. To send us your story for publication, contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

    This month we feature Anita Lancet, a lady who refuses to just "sit and knit"! Anita is a good example of positive emotions coming to those who seek them out. To read Anita's article, click here.

    Regular Writers

    Romance is in the air! - Michael McSorley

    I took this picture of an early daffodil growing in my rockery garden, to remind us that winter won't last for ever and that spring may just be around the corner. Michael tells me that it won't be long until St. Valentine's Day and this has put him in the mood to write about two of Russia's greatest composers, who were inspired to set the story of Romeo and Juliette to music. To read Michael's article, click here

    Practicing Gratitude - Jeanette Lewis

    The regular practice of expressing gratitude has been found to be one of the most effective means of raising one's mood. This month Jeanette shares her thoughts on gratitude and how it can lead to us experiencing more positive emotions in our lives. To read Jeanette's article click here..