Build up psychological capital


​Helena is very optimistic, knows how to cope with the setbacks of life, always keeps hope and is sure of herself and her worth. Together these qualities are called ‘psychological capital.’ Helena’s attitude and way of living illustrates this concept and its relationship to successful aging. Professor Luthans, who developed the construct of psychological capital, has defined it as 'an individual’s positive psychological state of development.' Psychological capital constitutes positive qualities that help to solve problems and meet challenges: hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism, or the HERO within. These qualities have a synergistic effect when combined, as evidenced in the life of Helena and in the way she lives her aging process.

The first quality of psychological capital is hope. Helena is hopeful and confident that she can continue to work: 'I want to keep on working every day until the day I die. I hope that I can do it, because I like to work. If not in theatre, then at conferences on body talk. I am making plans, at the age of 67, to make a career switch, to do something else.' Hope is a word that often gets confused with wishful thinking. Hope is, however, very active and rather different to simply wishing for the best. As Helena shows, it is strong willpower combined together with an openness to exploring various pathways to get the results needed. Helena is, for example, determined to keep on working. Since the possibilities for older actors in Colombia are limited, she is developing other ways to work. Helena demonstrates that hope is willpower mixed with ‘waypower.’

The second quality creating psychological capital is efficacy. Someone with high self-efficacy believes they have control over what happens to them, and they know they can beat whatever challenges come their way. Put simply, they believe in themselves. Helena comments that her feelings of efficacy have increased with aging: 'When I was young, I was very shy. Now I have a lot more personality and I am sure of myself. I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I really know who I am.' What boosts her feelings of efficacy in successful aging is that she has never attached much value to looks: 'In our house it was not important how we looked, it was more about emotions. Sympathy for the other was very important in my life. I prefer to focus on how I am with other people than think about my looks. That has helped me a lot in aging well. It is not about your physical looks, but about how you think. It’s gonna happen. I don’t care about it, even in this environment in which looks are so important, and with everybody having plastic surgery.'

The third element in psychological capital is resilience: the ability to bounce back from challenges, risks, and failures. Resilient people can adapt to changing and stressful situations effectively. Helena reveals that she had a role model of a particularly resilient mother: 'My mother lived during the war in Spain. She was nearly killed three times. She always had a smile. I know that I am going to survive anything.' Resilience means being able to bounce back, and even grow, in the event of a setback. Helena states: 'I put the bad things in front of me and figure out what’s the worst scenario: I can deal with that. My mother taught me something that is my line of life: ‘If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars(Rabindranath Tagore).’ I always have someone to talk to when things are bad or sad. I forget the sad days and remember the happy ones.'

Finally, the fourth element of psychological capital is optimism. Optimists focus on what is within their control, they frame situations and challenges positively, accept what is outside their control, and believe things will be ok in the end. Helena explains that she is very optimistic and joyous: 'I am a happy person. I am always laughing, looking for jokes, trying to make people laugh. I always see the good part of the moment. I don’t worry too much about things.' She also applies her optimism to the aging process: 'There is nothing you can do to combat getting older, so try to deal with it the best way you can. Try to see the good part of aging: if you didn’t age, you couldn’t have lived a lot of the things that are happy and good. You can stand up and say: I have lived! I walked with life, and every wrinkle represents something great that I have passed through. I love each of my lines, I worked for them all my life. Each line means something that I have lived. I like every aspect of my life, every line.' Actress Frances McDormand once put it like this: 'That’s another great thing about getting older. Your life is written on your face.'

Psychological capital is both related to age, and to aging successfully. There is a statistically significant difference among the generations in terms of psychological capital. For example, one study showed that baby boomers had higher scores on psychological capital than the younger generations. Also, psychological capital proves to have a substantial effect on life satisfaction and mental health, as well as overall health. Interestingly, since our brain is malleable, psychological capital can be developed and strengthened throughout life. Therefore, a wise move would be to plan to increase psychological capital such as hope, optimism, resilience and self-efficacy during the young and middle ages. Doing so could help reduce the possibility of all types of mental disorders, and thus improve the mental health and life satisfaction of people during older adulthood.