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How to Thrive Over 50 By Focusing on the "Bright Spots"

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How often do we encounter people who seem to notice nothing but trouble? They focus on the negative, on criticizing, intimidating, fear-mongering. Some of us were brought up by parents who believed that's how to get the best out of us. Many of our employers treat us in the same way. News reports are filled with leaders and would-be leaders who echo that negativity -- especially in this election season.

How about focusing attention on the "bright spots" -- successful efforts worth emulating," write Chip and Dan Heath in Shift: How to Change Things When Change is Hard? Their theory draws on the Appreciative Inquiry literature -- framing questions to elicit the best in people and organizations. Ask "unconditionally positive questions," a practice that leads to discovery and creativity, the AI work suggests. This leads us to focus on our achievements, our inner wisdom and creativity. It often culminates in people's taking action to achieve that state.

When your adult children are having difficulty deciding what to do with their lives, ask: What are times when you've felt exhilarated and engaged? Ask yourself when you're stuck or when you've just had a setback, personally or professionally: What gives me energy and a sense of aliveness? What can I do to put more of that into my life? Here is a photo of me on my horse Diamond. I started riding at age 50 and it's become passion for me ever since. 2011-10-24-Diamond.JPG

The Purpose Prize is an arm of Civic Ventures, an organization that promotes programs and research applicable to the "Third Age," or people over age 50. Awards are given to people who have started meaningful encore careers that create new ways to solve challenging social problems around the world. The stories of these people are inspirational.

I interviewed Dr. Kathie Malley-Morrison, professor at Boston University, for my TV show, called "Alivelihood: New Adventures As We Age." She writes a blog called "Engaging Peace," which is dedicated to promoting optimism concerning the possibility of world peace and to demonstrating how international conflicts have been resolved without war. She is using Appreciative Inquiry and looking for the bright spots. Having been in a serious car accident in her 20s, which left Malley-Morrison wheelchair-bound, she leads a large contingent of devoted student disciples who gain inspiration from her mentorship. And she exudes positivity and enthusiasm for her mission.

I have interviewed many people on "Alivelihood" over the past 3 years who have transformed their lives in positive ways as they move into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Their stories provide a counterpoint to our assumptions about decline in aging. In contrast to aging stereotypes, they all are enlivened by trying new things, founding NGOs that help others, starting new businesses, writing books for the 1st time, and volunteering in meaningful ways.

I heard Buddhist scholar Flint Sparks speak at a conference last weekend. He talked about "dukka," the recognition that life includes dissatisfaction and anguish. "Turn toward it with curiosity," he said. Rather than creating destructive coping strategies -- vindictiveness, over-drinking or overeating, avoidance and denial -- sit with it and ask yourself those Appreciate Inquiry questions: how can I turn my dissatisfaction on its head and focus attention on what I can learn from it. What small parts do I gain pleasure from? What character strengths have I engaged? And how do I want to reframe this experience to serve me better in the future?

What can we take from this discussion to make our lives more joyful and vibrant, despite the fact that if we are alive, "dukka happens?" It only disappears when we're dead. We can:
• Ask ourselves and our companions unconditionally positive questions that elicit the best in us and them.
• Reframe disappointments into learning and growing experiences.
• Look for the bright spots in anything we do and in others' experiences.
• Allow the bright spots to lead us to our wisdom and creativity.