Enhancing explanatory style, well-being & cognitive coping in older adults : a preliminary investigation : a thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Clinical Psychology at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand
The beliefs that a person holds about the origin, pervasiveness, and potential
recurrence of life events is referred to as ‘explanatory style’. Explanatory style is a
theoretical approach to optimism. Previous studies are unclear about the specific role
that explanatory style has in the well-being of older adults and how it relates to their
coping style. Furthermore, interventions that directly target explanatory style have not
yet been trialed with older adult samples.
The current study is separated into two parts using a sample of one hundred and thirty
older adults’ from fifteen community organisations in New Zealand. Part one
evaluates explanatory style and its relationship to their well-being and the cognitive
coping strategies they use. Part two evaluates the effectiveness of a one-month selfhelp
cognitive optimism intervention. This optimism intervention was initially
developed by Fresco and Craighead (1993) and was modified and pilot tested for the
current study, for suitability, clarity, and readability. After the pilot test, a controlled
experiment was conducted using two groups. The treatment group received a
cognitive self-help optimism intervention, while the control group received an eventrecording
task to complete over four weeks. Treatment outcome measures were
administered at pre-treatment, post-treatment, and follow-up.
Findings indicate that older adults have high levels of optimism and well-being and
that these two variables are only moderately correlated. Theories of socio-emotional
selectivity and realistic optimism help to explain these findings. Results also suggest
that catastrophising, rumination and blaming are maladaptive coping strategies while
positive reappraisal, putting into perspective, and refocusing on planning are adaptive
in older adults.
There was mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of the self-help optimism
intervention. Quantitative results showed no significant change in explanatory style
and well-being for the whole treatment group. Although pessimistic participants
experienced a significant increase in optimism, this is likely due to regression toward
the mean. Nevertheless, qualitative results indicated that the intervention was
somewhat helpful for putting into perspective and reappraising problems. Both the treatment and control group experienced significant reductions in self-blame,
rumination, and catastrophising, indicating that the task of recording good and bad
events may be helpful. The limitations of the current study and recommendations for
future research are discussed.