This year, Carolyn Hax, the syndicated advice columnist, celebrates 25 years of responding to American readers’ personal problems. Recently, in a special question-and-answer column for the Washington Post, Hax reflected on what she has learned about human nature and happiness.
Above all, she says, to survive the hard times, we must be flexible. It is the foundation for resilience, and resilience is the key to a happy life.
Flexibility vs. Rigidity
When Hax began writing her column, she was 30 years old, with no background in psychology and no experience in advice-giving. She operated primarily on strong opinions and the arrogance of youth.
But she has become less strident over time, thanks to the challenges in her own life.
One five-year period in the early 2000’s was especially instructive. During that time, Hax suffered a painful separation and a public divorce, a parent’s terminal illness and death, clinical depression, an old friend’s death in the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the discovery that her best friend was “better at having a friend than being one,” and a surprise new relationship and remarriage, followed by the birth of three children in 15 months.
Hax says that the impact of these experiences, along with the grind of daily life and advancing age, “softened me and my writing. They beat into me how relatively useless our plans are at creating a meaningful life, and how rewarding flexibility can be. How beautiful even pain can be. How many ways there are to be ‘right.’”
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset
Researchers in psychology and education have come to the same conclusion. Flexibility makes everything easier, they say, starting with our very first days at school.
Psychologist Carol Dweck, best known for her “growth-mindset” approach to education, teaches that flexibility is far more effective than rigidity when approaching any new task, skill, or situation, in school and in life.
With a growth mindset, we focus on effort, practice, and the process of learning. We develop a repertoire of approaches to difficult tasks, and we know that mistakes and failures are likely. We acknowledge that the best learning occurs at the edge of our current abilities, just outside of our comfort zone, which means that sometimes we must take risks.
With a fixed mindset, we focus mostly on outcomes. We have a set way of approaching things, and we try not to make mistakes. Because we see any kind of failure as “bad,” we tend to stay in our comfort zone and avoid challenges.
This kind of approach to learning may feel “safe,” but it is not adaptive to the many challenges, large and small, that we face in life. We do better when we adopt a growth mindset toward all things and follow the advice of Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to develop and sustain this mindset. “It’s a lifelong journey,” says Dweck.
One thing that will make the journey easier is to accept that most of us will have a fixed mindset toward some areas in life and a growth mindset toward others. Dweck advises, “If we want to move closer to a growth mindset in our thoughts and practices, we need to stay in touch with our fixed-mindset thoughts and deeds,” along with the things that trigger them.
Common triggers include prolonged or especially difficult challenges, previous negative experiences, and outright or anticipated criticism from others (“Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset,’” 2015).
We can tell when we are reverting to a fixed mindset by how we feel when we are engaged in a task or situation: we become angry, defensive, overly anxious, and easily overwhelmed. We feel unprepared, incompetent, and defeated.
Dweck advises that we observe and accept these feelings and continue to work through them as part of the learning process. We can also remind ourselves that the feeling of something being hard is good! It is “the feeling of your brain growing.”
A Flexible Approach to Aging
One of our greatest challenges in life is learning how to age successfully. A growth mindset is necessary here, too. It can make the difference between a comfortable old age and a miserable one.
“Successful aging,” broadly defined, means that we are constantly adapting to the changes in and around us, developing and maintaining strategies that support our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It also means that we keep a positive attitude toward aging itself.
Researchers with the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, which has been going on for nearly 65 years, have concluded that our attitudes toward aging can affect the actual makeup of our brains. In autopsies of participants, researchers found that those who held negative views of aging at the onset of the study showed a greater buildup of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles (harbingers of Alzheimer’s Disease), as well as more shrinkage in the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain), than participants who held more positive views (“Positive Attitudes Toward Aging May Pay Off in Better Health,” 2019).
How to Grow Your Mind
If “flexibility” and “growth” are the keys to happiness, what can each of us do to make them part of our daily lives?
Psychologists say that, if we practice the following mental processes, we will create a growth mindset that will sustain us throughout the years and into old age:
(1) Acknowledge and embrace imperfection in all things.
(2) Face challenges bravely and consider each one an opportunity to learn something.
(3) Replace judgment with acceptance and negative thoughts with positive ones, especially those related to ourselves.
(4) Stop seeking approval from others. Cultivate self-acceptance and self-approval.
(5) Appreciate our strengths and explore our weaknesses. We learn from both.
(6) Turn all criticism around until we find something valuable in it.
(7) Watch and learn from the mistakes of others. This can help calm our fear of trying something new.
(8) Remind ourselves that “not yet” is OK. We may not have mastered something – in fact, we may never master it – but we’re still learning, and that’s a good thing.
(9) Be willing to make mistakes in front of others. If we’re growing, this is bound to happen, plus we’re serving as a role model.
(10) Be realistic. Recognize that it takes time to learn anything new, and speed is not important in most things. What matters is that we’re making an effort and growing through the process.
(“15 Ways to Build a Growth Mindset,” 2019).
And finally, repeating a mantra can help remind us of what matters and provide inspiration when our motivation flags. Here’s one of my favorites, from author Robert Jordan:
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.