Wiser and Happier?

Getting older isn't as bad as it seems—on the contrary, it has its perks. Plus: How your sense of happiness changes as you age, midlife crisis myths, and ancient wisdom about aging.

12 Ways to Age—Into Agelessness, Part 2

Feeling young has very little to do with chronological age.

Part 1 introduced the subject of perpetuating youth by emphasizing that it's your attitude that principally determines how old you feel. It then expanded on four ways to slow down not chronological, but subjective, time. This part will take up four additional ways for staying young in mind (leaving four more to be described in the concluding Part 3):

(5) Dare to be More Spontaneous, Adaptable, and Open to Change. Staying with the "tried and true" hardly suggests a youthful mindset—or feelings of youthfulness. But encouraging yourself to meet new people, undertake new projects, try out new things, indicates a willingness to grow in a way children must grow if they're to thrive as adults. Once again, what nurtures the wondrous attitude of agelessness is repeatedly renewing, or finding ways to enrich, the many different areas of your life.

Maintaining routines may be comfortable, but beyond a certain point such stasis can become tedious and boring. And boring is hardly a state of mind linked to staying young. On the contrary, boldly seeking what lies outside your comfort zone may involve some risk—but it virtually guarantees that your days will be more intriguing, suspenseful, vibrant and alive.

You can also become more spontaneous through speaking off-the-cuff, making ad-lib remarks, or initiating conversations with strangers. Being so venturesome as to improvise, to say what pops into your mind, is to live more dynamically in the present. Each unrehearsed moment to the next, your active engagement with life intimately connects you to the core experience of agelessness. And such vital presence slows down the subjective passing of time and contributes to a sense not of growing old—but simply growing.

(6) Consciously Cultivate Silliness. By which I mean not acting foolish or asinine as such, but being willing to impersonate your child self when it would be safe, fun—and rejuvenating—to do so. And to act this way whether alone or with someone you can trust (who in fact might delight in taking your lead to act silly themselves!). Such "illogical" frivolity can take you back to a time when external limits and boundaries—not to say, "correct" decorum—barely existed. Frankly, we all harbor within us a certain ludicrous, nonsensical clown aspect to our personality—a part that, thankfully, resists maturation. And there's really no compelling reason not to let that giddy, inane, seemingly ridiculous and outrageous, part of ourselves come out and play when it's healthy to take a respite (or "recess") from daily chores and commitments.

When I suggest actually cultivating this silly, senseless aspect of yourself, what I mean is that the more you can get in touch with your non-rational side, the more you can access that part of your being that's eternally playful and young. Letting your adult hair down, you're purposefully participating in activity that's purposeles, meaningful only in the immediate gratification it offers—which is quite enough. (See my earlier post: "The Purpose of Purposelessness," Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4.) Ironically, it's only prudent to periodically liberate your "inner featherbrain." Here you're not playing games so much as making them up, not performing any dance you've formally learned but doing an extemporaneous, freewheeling dance of your own (certainly barefoot—and perhaps in the nude, at that!). And, if you start giggling while you're frolicking, so much the better.

(7) Indulge Your Sense of Humor. To quote the ageless Betty White (now 90—and counting... backwards): "If one has no sense of humor, one is in trouble." And in the (ahem) immortal song "Young at Heart," its most evocative lyric suggests that you "laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams." Now that's the attitude of perpetual youth! If, fundamentally, stress can be defined as "the rate of wear and tear on the body" (Hans Selye, MD, pioneering stress researcher), then just think how much less tension and stress you'd experience if you took things as they came—simply refusing to let anything upset your mental, physical, or emotional equilibrium.

Not to say that this is easy to do—far from it. For we all tend to get invested in, and deeply attached to, our relationships and pursuits. But can you begin to find ways of teaching yourself to stop responding so strongly to disapprovals and rejections, disappointments and misfortunes, so that the very stress of your reactions doesn't end up "aging" you?

If you consider the astounding vastness of the universe, and that you represent only the most infinitesimal speck in it, can you begin to see that letting setbacks (even major ones) totally throw you off your life course is, well, rather ridiculous? Can you learn to laugh at those lemons that constantly seem to be getting pitched at you? If you ever played dodge ball as a kid, wasn't it fun even when you couldn't get out of the way?!—for no matter what happened it was still a game, and so inherently enjoyable. Can you develop an appreciation of (and maybe even a "taste" for) the absurd? The very fact that you constitute just one of some seven billion people on this so-imperfect planet is itself reason for amazement—and bemused laughter.

So deigning to take your single, solitary life seriously may be to take it too seriously. Why not pro-actively seek out existential incongruities that, seen from the proper perspective, are nothing short of ludicrous (and maybe a tad hilarious as well)? Looking at your situation more literally, did you know that robust laughter actually gives your heart and lungs a healthy workout, thereby promoting physical health? Such laughter also bursts the stress and worry bubble your negative thoughts may have been inflating.

If you'd like to regain a more positive, optimistic, "ageless" outlook on life, you can't do better than emotionally distance yourself from the difficulties that may now be causing you distress. As Michael Pritchard opined: "You don't stop laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing."

(8) Stay as Active—and Productive—as Possible. Once again, I can't resist quoting Betty White, who declared: "Retirement is not in my vocabulary. They aren't going to get rid of me that way (!)." You may be getting older, but that doesn't mean you should give up making things happen in your life. Initiate or orchestrate events that bring people together—your family, friends, or members of your community. Experience the exhilaration of commemorating your ties with others. Search for new and refreshing ways to participate in their lives. Or develop new ties, perhaps through volunteer work.

Moreover, make it a point to stay active sexually. Holding onto as much of your youthful eroticism as possible also contributes to an attitude, or mindset, of agelessness. And while you're at it, consider redefining what sex, or sexuality, means to you. It's not simply about orgasm (which has been defined as itself nothing more than "a full body spasm"). It's about sensuality, physical pleasuring, carnal excitement. And regardless of your sexual potency—which drops off for all of us over time—you can still celebrate your sexuality. Be a great lover, become evermore sensitive to what turns your partner on (or, for that matter, yourself!).

Additionally, focus on new challenges—things you may have thought of doing but refrained from because they never seemed sufficiently "practical." Being productive typically relates to getting things done. But that doesn't mean the activity has to be arduous, or the particular venture important. Just that it be personally meaningful.

Think of it. Whatever you choose to do, can you do it in the spirit of a child—youthfully? Figure out how to approach your activities in the most joyful way possible. And, despite the very real demands that may exist in your life, try to resist engaging in what can't help but feel mechanical, fatiguing, or grueling. Admittedly, these are all ideals. But they're nonetheless ideals worth striving for. If you can transform your attitude such that what you have to do is what you choose to do, your enlightened perspective will add (as the saying goes) years to your life and life to your years

As I've already suggested, a purposeful sense of purposelessness that invites the impish, playful child in you to emerge is invaluable to your emotional health. But so is having a keen sense of purpose, as long as it doesn't become burdensome or obsessive. The main thing is to cultivate everything that makes you feel most alive, regardless of whether it's purposeless or purposeful. If you're going to stay young in mind and heart, your key criterion for action should be aliveness—not merely executing some pragmatic goal.


NOTE: In case you missed it, here's the link to Part 1 of this post. Also, If you'd like to read the concluding segment, here's the link to Part 3.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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