Self-image and self-perception play a major role in our life especially in our 50s, when we often find ourselves questioning the women we’ve become. Whether your self-image has taken a beating and you’re looking to regain your inner strength, or you’re as positive as can be, it’s important to give yourself a tune-up because having a good self-perception is probably one of the most valuable things we can hope to achieve in our life.
In fact, everything we do or say, everything we hear, feel, or otherwise perceive, it is influenced by how we see ourselves. And how we perceive our world influences our attitude, which in turn affects what we attract no matter what our age. Even more, if we believe we are capable of becoming the healthy, engaged person we want to be in old age, we are much more likely to experience that outcome, a recent Oregon State University study shows.
“How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be,” said Shelbie Turner, a doctoral student in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and co-author on the research.
Previous studies on ageing have also found that how people thought about themselves at age 50 predicted a wide range of future health outcomes up to 40 years later: cardiovascular events, memory, balance, will to live, hospitalizations, even mortality.
“People who have positive views of ageing at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don’t“, explained Karen Hooker, co-author of the study and the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU.
The self-perception influencers
In particular, because self-perceptions of ageing are linked to so many major health outcomes, Hooker and Turner wanted to understand what influences those perceptions. Their study looked specifically at the power of two factors: self-efficacy associated with possible selves, meaning a person’s perceived ability to become the one they want to be in the future; and optimism as a general personality trait.
The researchers measured self-perception of ageing by having respondents say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “Things keep getting worse as I get older,” or “As you get older, you are less useful.” They measured optimism in a similar way, with respondents ranking their agreement with statements like “In uncertain times I usually expect the best.”
To measure self-efficacy, the study used a dataset that compiled survey responses from older adults where they listed two “hoped-for” future selves and two “feared” future selves, and ranked how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be and avoiding becoming the person they feared to be. Among the “hoped for” selves were things like “A social person with a strong network of friends” and “A healthy, active person.” Examples of “feared” selves were “Chronically sick and in pain,” “Being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs” and “A cranky, angry old woman.” Results showed that, as predicted, higher optimism was associated with more positive self-perception of ageing.
According to the researchers, a major factor in how people see their own ageing selves is also linked to the way they internalize ageist stereotypes. Examples of such stereotypes include assumptions that older adults are bad drivers, or suffer memory problems, or are unable to engage in physical activity anymore. “Kids as young as 4 years old already have negative stereotypes about old people,” Hooker said. “Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”
Those clichés get reinforced every time an older adult forgets something and jokes: “Another senior moment!“. But the researchers say these thought patterns can do real harm.
People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven- Hooker said-. If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviours that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.
A way to mitigate those negative stereotypes about ageing is to promote strong connections amongst generations.
The more you’re around older people, the more you realize that it’s not all bad- Turner said.- Older people can do some things better than young people do. Increasing opportunities for intergenerational relationships is one way we can make people more optimistic about ageing.
As Mark Freedman recounts in his new book How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, when younger and older connect, the intergenerational relationships built are a route to success in early life and a key to happiness and well-being in our later years.