The good news is there is a secret to living a longer and healthier life. The great news is it will also make you happier in the process.
In college, I took a class called “Literature and Aging” — it could be used as credit in English or Gerontology. One of the things we learned is that the old method of retiring was literally killing retirees. They would pack up their desks, give a speech at their retirement party, collect their commemorative watch, and go home to watch TV — occasionally taking a trip to visit the grandkids. They would too often be dead within a few years.
What was happening to them?
Their brains and bodies were atrophying. After years of usefulness and purpose, they just stopped cold. Their bodies began to shut down.
Conversely, I have a neighbor who is 88 years old and worked full time until about a year ago. She is sharp as a tack. Seriously. She and her 92 year old husband are still very active. I recently saw them dancing at an event.
What makes them so sharp? How is it possible that this couple, in their collective 180 years, is still dancing?
In 1994, there was an article in Life magazine entitled “Building a Better Brain” about a group of nuns who had an amazing habit (pun intended). They often lived well into their 90s and some over 100. The study connected the differences in lifestyle and demeanor to health and life expectancy. Those who were more positive, did word puzzles, and regularly taught others, lived longer and were less likely to suffer from debilitating brain afflictions.
My neighbors and these nuns are on to something big. There are simple, but powerful, steps everyone can take to live longer and healthier.
Step One: get positive.
Since Martin Seligman introduced the term “Positive Psychology” in 1998, there has been a lot of remarkable research conducted by a broadening field of experts. I am most inspired by Shawn Achor. Lucky for us, he has presented a recipe for living more positively:
- Each morning, write down three gratitudes
- Each night, journal about one positive thing that happened earlier that day
- Exercise daily
- Meditate daily
- Practice conscious, random acts of kindness
For more about Shawn and his approach, watch the TED Talk below or read one of his books.
Step Two: Learn often.
Your graduation day was not the end of learning. It should be the beginning. In fact, the word “commencement” is defined as “a beginning or start.” Every time you learn something new, you put your brain to good use — like exercising a muscle — and improve your neuroplasticity. According to an article in the Oxford publication called “Brain”, “Neuroplasticity can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function and connections.” Learning enhances your brain’s ability to overcome obstacles posed by illness or injury. This is how reading, doing word puzzles, teaching, and other activities were helping the nuns to have healthier brains.
Reading is a great way to learn. But, not everyone reads. Perhaps you don’t read — maybe you just don’t have the time. But, you might have time for an audiobook. You can listen in the car, at the gym, or while you cook dinner. You can download an app to your phone that can be your own library!
Classes are another great way to learn. Perhaps you can work toward a certification or designation that will earn you a higher position in your career. But, time might be a factor again. While you might not have time for traditional classroom learning, you do have time for the Khan Academy. This free online school offers classes in just about every topic. Started by Salman Khan, the academy is based on the online tutorials he was conducting for his niece. The site now boasts over 22 million learners!
Step Three: Try something new.
This wasn’t in the nun study and I have no idea if my neighbors are doing this. But, I know from personal experience that experiencing new things helps you view the world with youthful wonder. Your comfort zone is a dangerous place. Staying in it too often can lead to complacency and regret. If there is something you have always wanted to try, do it now. There is no reason to wait. If it requires resources you don’t currently have, make a list and get it done.
Who has the time for this?
You do. Most people waste a lot of their time doing things that they don’t need to do. The most common time-sucker is the TV. If it eats up a significant portion of your week, unplug it. Use that time to do something that will make you happier and healthier. I doubt anyone on their deathbed has said, “I wish I spent more time watching TV.”