Is Anika Wells Generating a Wave of Optimism for Healthy Aging?

Yesterday I watched Australia's Minister for Aged Care Anika Wells give an excellent speech at the National Press Club  in which she said, "For the first time in a decade, workers, residents, stakeholders have reason to feel optimistic." and "This for the first time, allow us all to be optimistic for the sector and the increased care residents are already receiving."

This builds on what Anika said at the "Business of Ageing - Retirement Living and Aged Care Leaders' Summit 2023" when she said ", If there is one message I want you to take back to your management and workers – it is optimism. Optimism for funding, optimism for workforce, optimism for care, optimism for older Australians. Optimism about the introduction of the new Independent Health and Aged Care Pricing Authority, the 1 July increase will be based on your real costs. But it is upon us all to turn optimism into long-lasting improved care for older people."

Coincidentally, I met with Palliative Care Australia later yesterday, talking to the charismatic  CEO  Camilla Rowland about optimism for the Palliative Care Sector and Aged Care and in the evening, I addressed the University of Melbourne Graduate Union in the evening on "Optimism, not Crises."

The Centre for Optimism's mission is to increase optimism in Australia.

Older Australians have been very receptive to our message - I have run several workshops this year for older Australians through Probus and in Aged Care facilities, helping them act more infectiously optimistic for themselves, their communities, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I have shared the "Optimism Superpower" and envisioning our "Best Possible Selves" and using more upbeat greetings like "What's been the best thing in your day?"

Optimism is critical, and I am glad Anika gets it.

I hope Commonwealth Treasury gets the message too includes optimism and pessimism in its "Measuring what Matters" later in the year.

Optimism and Healthy Aging

Numerous studies have emphasised the robust connection between optimism and increased lifespan. Dr Carol Graham, a prominent researcher at the Brookings Institution, reinforced the significance of this correlation, stating, "The connection between optimism and longevity is substantial." 

This assertion is substantiated by research conducted by a collaborative team from the Boston University School of Medicine, the USA National Center for PTSD, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their work determined that individuals with higher levels of optimism had a higher probability of living longer and attaining "exceptional longevity," defined as reaching or surpassing the age of 85.

Having dispositional optimism, the tendency to look forward to positive outcomes, is a life-extending valuable health trait. It can be built using exercises like our "Best Possible Selves" and habitually looking to the positive.

Research suggests that heightened levels of optimism are linked with a lower risk of chronic diseases and mortality and an increased likelihood of healthy aging, characterised by the absence of major chronic diseases and both physical and cognitive impairment. 

More recent studies have revealed that higher levels of optimism, compared to lower levels, were associated with up to a 10% greater lifespan.

Why is this so? The American Heart Association's 2021 Scientific Statement illustrated the association between optimism and healthier lifestyle behaviours. Individuals with an optimistic disposition are likelier to engage in physical activity, show lower smoking rates, adhere to a more nutritious diet, report superior sleep quality, and exhibit higher overall cardiovascular health scores. Beyond these lifestyle behaviours, optimism has been linked to healthy aging, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases (including stroke and heart failure), and decreased all-cause mortality rates.

Further supporting these findings, a comprehensive Chinese longevity survey revealed a substantial correlation between optimism and a lower mortality risk among China's elderly population. Furthermore, the survey established a positive relationship between optimism and survival, with the impact of optimism on lifespan being significantly more influential than the positive effects attributed solely to healthy behaviour. Consequently, these findings led researchers to propose that interventions designed to cultivate optimism among older individuals could improve health outcomes as they age.

Collectively, these studies underscore the powerful connection between optimism and longevity. Dispositional optimism, as a beneficial health asset, can mitigate the risk of chronic diseases, promote healthier behaviours, and enhance overall well-being. Adopting an optimistic perspective contributes to an extended lifespan, promotes healthier aging, and decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and all-cause mortality. The increasing body of evidence reinforces the importance of fostering optimism as a central facet of leading a healthy and fulfilling life.

The Optimism Crisis?

"There's a tsunami of pessimism sweeping the globe," writes Umair Haque in his thought-provoking article, "Why the World Is So Pessimistic: How Disconnection — And Misconnection — Are Driving Our Civilisation Crazy."

Since 2017, I have referred to a fog of pessimism enveloping Australia and the world; perhaps Haque is right; it's getting worse.

Haque asserts that this worldwide pessimism is evident across many aspects of society. For example, in America, 80% of people don't believe their kids will have a better life, and the sentiment is similar in Europe. According to Haque, one primary reason for this pessimism is the widespread loss of belief in key institutions and values. From religions plunging into fundamentalism to the surge in nationalism and declining trust in systems and institutions, there is a clear global trend of people searching desperately for something to believe in.

Moreover, the evidence for this sense of pessimism and loss of optimism is echoed in numerous contemporary studies. For example, the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2023 showed that only four in 10 respondents predicted that they and their families would be "better off" in five years, a dramatic 10-point reduction from last year. Moreover, the report highlighted that the United States and 23 other countries hit an all-time low in this category.

Despite these worrying trends, Haque proposes that optimism lies in rebuilding these lost connections. Human beings need their lives to have meaning and purpose. They need a link to timeless and enduring values that outlast and came before us. Therefore, the path to optimism lies in reconnecting with each other, ourselves, timeless values, and nature. Small actions such as getting to know your neighbours, reading meaningful books to children, planting trees, or simply learning about climate change can contribute to this process of reconnection and rebuilding. By confronting the question of our existence and how we can make the world a better place, we can find the optimism that seems so elusive in our current era.

Last week, Deloitte published its 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, highlighting the same sentiments of pessimism and stress among young people. Surveying 22,000 Gen Z and millennial respondents across 44 countries, the study revealed low optimism regarding economic and sociopolitical situations. High stress and anxiety levels were observed, with work pressures causing significant burnout among both generations. Furthermore, mental health concerns, poor work-life balance, and unhealthy workplace cultures were found to be substantial stress contributors.

Similarly, the "Are The Kids OK?" study by Dr Quentin Maire, Nadishka Weerasuriya, and Associate Professor Jenny Chesters from the University of Melbourne revealed pervasive pessimism among Australian students. Fewer than half felt optimistic about Australia's future, with just one in six confident about the world's future. Moreover, this sense of pessimism was echoed by more than half of the surveyed students, suggesting a widespread concern about the fate of their generation.

Several influential figures, such as the Dalai Lama, Professor Lea Waters, and educational psychologist Michele Borba, emphasise the importance of cultivating optimism, especially in children, to help them navigate these challenging times. They suggest that optimism is crucial for mental resilience and can be cultivated through consistent positive messaging and fostering a positive environment.

In response to this rising pessimism, the Centre for Optimism was established with a mission to nurture optimism and positivity. Drawing from years of research, the Centre encourages everyone to add a hint of optimism to their everyday interactions. It offers exercises, workshops, and initiatives to empower individuals to envision and build a more optimistic future.

Singapore's Senior Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, acknowledges that the loss of optimism is a global issue and calls for international collaboration to restore hope. Similarly, Penny Mordaunt MP, the UK's Leader of the House of Commons, recognises the divide between optimists and pessimists and urges the need for optimists in tackling contemporary challenges.

Despite the "tsunami of pessimism," as Umair Haque puts it, and the "fog of pessimism," as I put it, the evidence suggests a pathway. As a global society, we must rekindle our faith in institutions and values and the power of human connection. We must help each other see beyond pessimism and work collaboratively to build a more optimistic future. This requires us not just to navigate but to thrive amidst these challenges.

The global loss of optimism requires a collective effort to overcome. Each of us has a role in fostering hope and positivity within our communities. This is our collective call to action, our shared challenge, and one we must meet.

The task ahead is immense but possible. So as we endeavour to thrive beyond this pessimism, let's strive to be a beacon of optimism, a ray of hope piercing the fog. As Viktor Frankl told us, remember that even in the darkest times, the possibility of change is never beyond our reach. We have the ability and the responsibility to spark a wave of optimism that can counteract the tsunami of pessimism sweeping our globe.

Efforts to rekindle a sense of community and connection are underway. For example, at Sunday's "Feast of the Holy Trinity", celebrated by Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Port Melbourne, an uplifting atmosphere of joy, hope, and optimism was cultivated. This event wasn't merely a theological commemoration but also served as the Feast Day of Optimism, which resonated with the attendees and created an affirmation of optimism that was almost infectious. Bishop Huggins' words echoed the mission of The Centre for Optimism, highlighting the need for collective positivity and hope and offering blessings for the Centre's continued work in this crucial area.

Through small but significant acts of courage and connection, we can start to turn the tide of this global 'tsunami of pessimism'. The task may seem daunting, but with commitment, collaboration, and persistence, we can rebuild optimism and connection in our world.

As we confront the challenges of our times, let us reframe our mindsets and interactions. Instead of mundane greetings, let's ask each other, "What's been the best thing in your day?"

Instead of succumbing to pessimism, let's actively engage with proven exercises such as activating our "Optimism Superpower" and envisioning our "Best Possible Selves".

When faced with planning meetings that tend to be negative, let's shift the narrative by asking, "What makes you optimistic?" instead of dwelling on concerns that "keep us up at night."

Let's encourage hope and positivity in our children, workplaces, communities, and world. Through this collective effort, we can traverse the storm, emerging on the other side not just intact but better, stronger, and more optimistic about our shared future. This is not just a call to action; it's a shared responsibility, a challenge we must and can overcome together.

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