Five life skills that ensure we are happier and healthier in older age identified by scientists

Attributes such as optimism and emotional stability can lead to a better quality of life in our later years, says Margaret Jennings.

Five life skills that ensure we are happier and healthier in older age identified by scientists

FIVE life skills that ensure we are happier and healthier in our older age have been identified by scientists at University College London.

The researchers found that having emotional stability; determination; control; optimism, and conscientiousness brought a whole host of benefits.

They included people being less depressed or lonely and more financially stable and healthier, than those who had only two or fewer of those skills.

“No single attribute was more important than others. Rather, the effects depended on the accumulation of life skills,” said co-leader of the research, Professor Andrew Steptoe of the university’s epidemiology and public health department.

He said it’s well recognised that some highly intelligent people or those who come from privileged backgrounds, may not succeed, because they lack character strengths whereas others less well endowed who are reliable and self-disciplined, attain their goals.

It is these very character strengths that emerged as making a difference in how we grow old, when they studied data taken from over 8,000 men and women over the age of 52, as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

They found that only 3.1% of those who had four or five of the skills had significant depressive symptoms, compared to 22.8% among those with low life skills.

According to the third major report by the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing at Trinity College Dublin published last March, one in 20 older adults in Ireland experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year.

The report, which is a national longitudinal study of 8,504 people aged 50 and over in Ireland, established in 2006, said depression has a significant detrimental effect on the health and independence of older people here.

It also highlighted that pain is a common complaint affecting a third of adults in Ireland, with the majority reporting chronic back pain.

In the British study nearly half of people who reported the highest levels of loneliness — which can be a big contributor to depression — had the fewest of the five skills identified.

Only 6% of those with a higher skills set, reported their health as being fair or poor, compared to 36.7% of those with the lowest level.

At the same time researchers point out that no causal conclusions can be drawn from observational studies and this point is made by Michael Hogan, of the School of Psychology, at NUI, Galway, who has a special interest in human ageing and adaptation.

“These are interesting findings and not surprising given the broad convergence of similar findings in the literature,” he says.

“When these large-scale studies measure such life skills — sometimes called personality traits, or dispositions — they measure them using self-report scales which in essence, provide respondents with an opportunity to tell us something about their beliefs and behavioural dispositions.

Dr Hogan says having emotional stability would suggest we were good at regulating our emotions; having determination would suggest we were good at keeping on track in pursuing our goals; having control would mean feeling a sense of control over our actions and environment; having optimism would mean we remain hopeful for positive outcomes, and the final lifeskill, conscientiousness, would mean we follow certain rules in an orderly and consistent manner.

These kind of emotional belief and behavioural tendencies are beneficial at any stage of life of course, but it’s never too late for us to adopt them and bring about change, says the psychologist.

“The key challenge always is in translating these types of correlational findings into the design of possible interventions that might support positive change,” he says.

“And there is a mass of separate research that examines interventions directly. For instance, looking at evaluating the effects of ‘optimism training’ (improving our positivity through our thoughts, feelings and behaviours), or using mindfulness training, or acceptance and commitment therapies.”

In other words, he argues, it is possible for any or us to change emotional, belief and behavioural tendencies in a way that supports and enhances our health and wellbeing.

“Just to give you one example, we have found that mindfulness training can help people experiencing pain to better manage their emotions and experience less pain interference.

“This then allows people to pursue valued activities with a greater sense of control and optimism,” he says.

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