“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” – Christopher Germer
Being hard on ourselves is something many have achieved black-belt status at mastering. But what of self-compassion—acknowledging that we are human in the face of personal error—and giving ourselves a break?
New research published in Aging & Mental Health suggests that having a self-compassionate perspective about the aging process has positive implications for health and well-being in later life. Researchers used survey data from 517 women between the ages of 40 and 60 to explore the relationship between self-compassion and a variety of attitudes about aging, as well as well-being-related outcomes. Their findings suggest that self-compassion, along with attitudes about physical change during the aging process, account for anywhere from 36 to 76 percent of the differences in well-being of aging adults across a variety of different age-related outcomes.
An attitude is typically defined as a belief a person holds which has some sort of evaluative flavor to it. Attitudes toward the aging process seem to become more salient and start solidifying in midlife and onward—due, in part, to a heightened awareness of physical changes occurring to one’s body, role transitions, and general reminders of mortality. This attitude formation, paired with negative media representations of older adults, can cause individuals to be fearful of the prospect of growing older. Indeed, previous research has found that holding negative stereotypes and beliefs about older adults can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies—prompting individuals to decrease activity, lose self-confidence, and espouse feelings of personal meaningless as they approach later life.
While these findings are clear, research indicates that it is possible for older adults to embrace a more glass-half-full perspective with the acknowledgment that age, in addition to moving one closer to death, increases one’s maturity, emotional stability, and wisdom in a way that only having experienced life can provide. So it appears that stances toward aging are not all dire, but can be multifaceted. Given this, the authors predicted that participants who ranked higher in self-compassion would report more positive terms when prompted about the aging process as it applies to psychological loss, corporeal change, and psychologically based growth—which, in turn, would be associated with higher levels of self-reported physical health and mental health.
To test these notions, a community-based sample of aging adults was mailed a questionnaire designed to assess the aforementioned relationships and posited associations. Results from the study found that the composite model of individuals’ attitudes towards the aging process explained a significant portion of the variance in depressive symptoms, as well as the self-reported well-being of study participants. What’s more, self-compassion explained between 30 and 50 percent of the variance in individuals’ attitudes towards the aging process itself.
In sum, these new findings present a promising new practical avenue to bolster an aging population’s well-being via the route of self-compassion. Thus, rather than attempting to tell people that they “should” have positive attitudes toward aging because it would be good for their health, a more promising avenue to the same end goal may be to promote a position of self-compassion in aging adults.