A can-do attitude may be the key to a happy old age.

That’s the implication of numerous studies that suggest that older adults who feel that they are in control of their lives—a concept known as self-efficacy—are more likely to avoid depression, maintain better health and cognitive abilities, and live longer than seniors without a sense of control.

In one recent study, seniors who received significant social support from family and friends—such as money, or help with housework—reported feeling that they had lost control over their lives. The research, which was published in Social Science and Medicine, suggested that the loss of self-efficacy counteracted the benefits of social support and led to higher rates of depression.

“Self-efficacy is especially important in older adults, who often must cope with the physical and mental consequences of aging and transitioning from playing a central role in society to perhaps accepting a more limited role,” explains Joel Pava, PhD, director of psychotherapy services in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “People who navigate this change by finding new ways to feel effective and useful tend to do much better than those who feel that their ability to do things for themselves or others is limited. People with high degrees of self-efficacy have a sense that they’re in the driver’s seat—they are more in charge of their lives as opposed to feeling dependent on others.”

How Do You Rate?

Paying attention to your feelings of self-efficacy and working to strengthen them can help you build resilience as you weather life’s challenges, Dr. Pava says. An excellent tool to help you assess how much control you feel over your life was devised by cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura, who first developed the concept of self-efficacy decades ago. His description of the characteristics of people with high self-efficacy and those with low self-efficacy, summarized below, will help you gain insight into how you respond to challenging events.

Individuals with High Self-efficacy

  • Approach challenges as tasks to be mastered
  • Set challenging goals and commit themselves to accomplishing them
  • Have a deep interest in activities in which they engage
  • Accept setbacks and disappointments as temporary and due to insufficient effort or knowledge, and believe that goals are ultimately achievable
  • Continue to sustain effort in the face of setbacks, and quickly recover their sense of efficacy

Individuals with Low Self-efficacy

  • Tend to avoid or withdraw from challenging tasks
  • Have lower aspirations and weaker commitment to goals
  • Often believe that challenging situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Focus on personal deficiencies, obstacles and negative outcomes
  • Decrease their efforts and may give up quickly in the face of challenges
  • Recover with difficulty from setbacks and are slow to re-establish feelings of self-efficacy

“People with high self-efficacy have more of an internal locus of control: When they are challenged, solutions come from within themselves,” Dr. Pava points out. “On the other hand, those with low self-efficacy have an external locus of control. They depend on solutions provided by sources outside themselves. They view themselves as less able to effect change and may become more passive as a result.”

Gaining Control

Is it possible to strengthen your sense of control over your life? Definitely, Dr. Pava says: “As you grow older, you need to accept the limitations that come with aging and diversify your portfolio. For example, if you have retired from your job, perhaps you could become a mentor to others, or turn to another activity altogether, such as acquiring new skills for home repair projects, painting, or becoming more involved in a charity group or with your grandkids. Accept that your roles in life are transitioning, think about what it is you want to accomplish, and then create new roles for yourself that are achievable and consistent with your goals and values."

Feelings of self-efficacy can vary throughout the life cycle, Dr. Pava points out: “As we age, we may lose some capabilities but acquire others. Remind yourself about what you can do and focus on the positives that you bring to the table.”

How to Improve Your Self-efficacy

Work closely with advisors to learn about and plan the course of personal matters, such as finances, medical care and estate planning.

  • Avoid taking a passive approach that may increase feelings of dependency.
  • Stay up to date on important skills, current events, technology and social developments.
  • Take risks. Succeeding at new ventures builds confidence.
  • Don’t use age as an excuse for avoiding new situations.
  • Learn ways to minimize stress and boost your mood when facing difficult tasks.
  • Develop resilience by learning new ways to look at challenges and defeats.
  • Cultivate an optimistic attitude.
  • Keep your perspective and sense of humor.
  • Be thankful for a longer life.

This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital dedicated to maintaining mental fitness from middle age and beyond.

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