Recently I have taken up a new mantra and it’s this: “Live as though you will last forever but stay mindful that it could all be over tomorrow.”
It’s a blend of the stoic reminder Memento Mori, literally ‘Remember that you must die’ with a prompt based on my belief that in order to age well we should be willing to keep moving forward, be curious to learn new things and think new thoughts. It seems like a contradiction in terms.
Indeed Marcus Aurelius, known as the stoic Roman Emperor, wrote to himself:
“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able, be good”. (Meditations 4.17)
This works for me. Live for today, be the best you can be and make the most of every moment. When I look for older people to inspire me, it is those who seem to age with a youthful spirit.
A few years ago, I watched an episode of the TV programme ‘Grand Designs’, in which a retired couple bought a plot of land to have a modern Huf Haus built to their specifications. It was a very new idea in the UK and I remember feeling admiration for their energy, forward-thinking and boldness.
As I write this, I have the radio playing a show celebrating David Bowie, on what would have been his 74th birthday. He remains a huge inspiration, constantly creative, always willing to take on new challenges, to be curious and inventive.
Think about toddlers; they’ve just learned to walk and now they want to run. Teenagers, sometimes to their parents’ horror, experiment with new things and new ideas! Watch a child doing anything; the simplest activity will usually be undertaken with extreme concentration and joy. But as we age, most of us stick rigidly to old ways of doing and thinking.We know from neuroscience that holding on to old ways of doing things is not our fault. Our brains work hard to protect us from danger and discomfort, and change is often uncomfortable. We are wired, to a certain degree to hold on to anxieties or worries over things, to keep us out of trouble. The downside is that this can also stop us from moving forward, doing new things and exploring new ways of being.
We also know that having a positive outlook matters. The long-term study of nuns that began in 1986, found that those who wrote positively in their journals before taking their vows were more likely to live longer. Post mortem studies of the brain tissue of those ‘positive-thinking’ nuns also showed that, although some had changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, that did not necessarily lead to cognitive impairment, a sign of dementia.
It’s not easy when you’re feeling down to ‘think positively’ and I’m certainly not talking about cases of enduring or severe mental health issues. But it does help to distract yourself and occupy your mind with something different.
I find that physical or mentally engaging activities, such as guided meditations, simple puzzles (word searches, for example) or pulling some weeds in the garden, are all helpful distractions. The real trick is to have your favoured activity ready to put into action when you need it!
It helps if you can notice how you are feeling, not to make judgements or label feelings as good or bad, but to imagine the feelings as waves that are simply washing over you.
When we label or judge our emotions, we empower them to lead us into old ways of behaving.
I learnt a new trick recently when faced with a task I find boring or repetitive (ironing, for example). Rather than saying to myself ‘I have to do the ironing’, I say instead ‘I get to do the ironing because I have clothes to wear!’. It’s these little things that can ease you into a more positive mindset.
Start simply in your thinking about new possibilities. Change your hairstyle, try new ways of dressing, experiment with at least one new recipe every week. Try anything you can think of that will bring variety and new experience to your life.
Do one new thing every week. Challenge yourself physically and mentally. Remember, the only person who can truly limit your capacity to change is YOU.
Zoe Berry is a retired RN who lives in England and is passionate about helping others to age well. You can follow her work at Aging Is A Gift.