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55+ AND ALIVE: When I grow up, I want to be as curious and optimistic as Frances Bartlett Kinne

Davis College of Business Dean Dr. Don Capener
Davis College of Business Dean Dr. Don Capener

One of the keys to staying healthy, wealthy and wise after age 55 relates to the power of positive thinking. Optimism is a hopeful, positive outlook on the future, yourself and even the world around you. It is a key part of resilience, an inner strength that helps you get through tough times.

Frances Bartlett Kinne, our past president and chancellor emerita, works alongside me for Jacksonville University — even though she turns 99 this month. I’ve talked with her about the key to her long and productive life, and she is clear: It relates to her optimism.

In her recent checkup at Mayo Clinic-Florida in Jacksonville, she was asked if she would allow the residents to scan her brain. She was told she continues to display brain waves “similar to someone in their 40s or 50s,” not typical activity for someone almost 100 years old.

According to Kinne, her optimism helped her see better, feel things more intensely and, most important, think positively above the future. But the power of positive thinking has extra benefits you might not know equate to watching your diet or exercise: Kinne’s optimism helped her physical health, she said, and is one of her “secret” ingredients to a long and productive life.

JU Past President and Chancellor Emerita Dr. Frances Bartlett Kinne
JU Past President and Chancellor Emerita Dr. Frances Bartlett Kinne

You don’t have to be a “born optimist” to use the power of optimism. In daily life, or when faced with a crisis, you can choose a positive viewpoint to make the most of what life brings your way.

How can you make optimism work for you? Well, even if you tend to be negative, “realistic optimism” can work for you.

According to WebMD, with realistic optimism, you don’t just expect the best and hope that things will go well. Nor do you let yourself see and expect only the worst. Instead, you look at the “big picture,” the good and the bad. You then:

■ Decide what is realistic to expect.

■ Decide what you can do to make things go as well as possible.

■ Choose to focus on the positives, and on your strengths, as you go forward.

For example, let’s say you are about to have knee surgery. You can choose to be optimistic about your recovery, rather than let fear or hopelessness take hold. Imagine how you want to feel 6 or 12 months after surgery: strong and active. Picture what you want to be doing, how you want to be moving around. Keep these positive, hopeful pictures in your mind. A positive attitude can also help you keep up a positive mood, which can help with healing. But optimism alone is only part of a good recovery. It’s also important to know what to do, such as physical therapy exercises, and what to be careful about. And if you need support or advice, you can plan ahead with the right people before the surgery.

When practicing optimism, remember to keep a flexible frame of mind. Expect change, and be ready to adjust to it.

When you’re having trouble with negative thoughts, expecting the worst, or feeling powerless, try any of these exercises for a few days:

■ Focus on what’s going well. Write down three things that have gone well in the past day. These can be large, like getting a raise, or small, like “I talked with an old friend today.” Describe the cause of each event, and credit yourself for the part you played in it, such as “I made that phone call I’ve been putting off for a long time.”

■ Practice gratitude. Write down three things in your life you are grateful for. This kind of focus on what enriches your life can help keep your thoughts and feelings more positive.

■ Look for the benefits. Think of a negative event from your near or distant past. Write it down. Now think of something positive that has or could come of it. Write it down. For the positive thought, use larger handwriting or a favorite color.

■ Look ahead. Picture yourself doing something that feels good. Expect good things to happen.

■ Build yourself up. When you need it, lean on others or your faith to build more strength. Say to yourself often, “I am strong.”

The second key to Kinne’s long and healthy life is intellectual curiosity, she says. Even years after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree, she was always learning new languages and cultures, and exploring new areas. She successfully earned a Ph.D. and wrote her dissertation in German long after her schoolmates were “done” with school. In 1961, she became the first female College of Fine Arts Dean in the world, and in 1979, she became the first female president of a university in Florida.

Later in life, she wrote a memoir, “Iowa Girl: The President Wears a Skirt.” Kinne never “retired” from JU, but continued to stay engaged with students and young people of all walks of life. Her intellectual curiosity and optimism are distinguishing factors that she credits for her long life and success.

When I grow up, I want to be like Frances Bartlett Kinne.

Dr. Don Capener, Dean of the Jacksonville University Davis College of Business, lives in Jacksonville with his wife, Annie, and their two youngest daughters. His 55+ And Alive is an occasional column in The Florida Times-Union’s PrimeTime section. He can be reached at dcapene@ju.edu.