A Positive Choice
Olga’s often asked how big a part attitude plays in the story of her crazily youthful vigor. Her answer is always the same: it’s huge. HUGE. Staying relentlessly focused on the positive keeps any doubts or criticisms from pulling her down.
On one hand, her faith in positive thinking is unsurprising. Plenty of research – including Yale psychologist Becca Levy’s work on aging stereotypes —suggests that optimism correlates strongly with health and longevity.
But I have sometimes heard grumbling from skeptics that the Don’t Worry Be Happy rule for living is too pat, too simplistic, and too specifically tailored to the lucky and the blessed.
“I’d be optimistic too if I were in Olga’s shoes!” goes the refrain. It’s easy to look on the bright side when you have no real aches and pains or health issues, you’re not radioactively lonely, not depressed, not burdened by money woes. The luxury of optimism, by this way of thinking, falls to those who have led charmed lives.
But here’s the thing: Olga’s life has been anything but charmed. She grew up on the hardscrabble Saskatchewan prairie and her early years were full of struggle (she fled a terrifying marriage and raised two daughters as a single mom; one of those daughters she lost to cancer.) She earned a teaching degree at night school while working days. She spent a lot of time trudging into a headwind. Clearly, optimism isn’t some default position she arrived at because she realized, like Dr. Pangloss, that “everything is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism, for Olga, is a choice.
She chooses it for a lot of reasons. Because it’s how her parents raised her. Because gratitude sits better with her strong faith than grumbling does. Because it’s more fun. And, maybe mostly, because it works. Optimism helps us take a wide perspective and feel connected to others (as the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has noted.) There’s plenty of evidence now that where our minds go, our bodies tend to follow. And since Olga intends to keep competing at a high level until age 100 or beyond, she figures she might as well run the software that will help, not hinder, her movement along that trajectory.
This week she’s in Budapest competing in the world outdoor championships in a new category: women 95-99. She has already bagged a new world record in the high jump and it would surprise no one if she walked away with eleven new entries in the record books. “Why not?” she says.
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