Recently, for instance, one of my closest friends commented on the number of his colleagues in their 60s who were showing a noticeable loss of exuberance as they aged. “You’ve passed through those years, and seem to still have a lot of joie de vivre,” he put it. “What do you think is responsible for that?”
The question had never been put to me in such an incisive way before – I don’t have many friends, but the ones I have are, as we say in Guyana, shine – so it took some rumination before the cogito produced anything of substance. Indeed, the remark caused me to examine the pattern of my life to see what the answers might be, and while the subjectivity involved might make all this meaningless for some, it might be of use to some folks reading this.
Going in, it might be argued that it is all DNA; that the puzzle is truly undecipherable, and I would have no control over or insight into that. However, that aside, and having thought about my friend’s question, and without doing any research on it, here is my take.
First of all, your life needs to have several dimensions occupying you and drawing your commitment. Nobody ever told me this – I can’t recall reading it or hearing it anywhere – but fairly early in my life I noticed the value of having different activities on my radar. Understand I am not talking here about social or recreational activities, as valuable as those pieces are. I am referring to things that occupy you in a functional way.
When I was living in Cayman and running the National Festival there, with a schedule usually going from 7am to 3pm, I would come home many afternoons, worn out by the day’s work, verging on sleepy, but I began noticing that if I became involved with something else – fruit trees; wood work; music – I would become energized again, literally in minutes.
The key, you may notice, was going to a completely different activity, where your brain has to shift gears; where your focus is completely different. In other words, bringing work home doesn’t do it; you have to engage different work. On reflection, it makes sense; the part of our brain used in the earlier activity is tired, whereas the part in this new occupation is refreshed and ready to go.
The other thing is to keep active. You know the old saw that goes “what you don’t use you lose.” It’s very true. As I get older I do find some days I have this inclination to just laze about, with a kind of listless feeling, but I noticed, after it had occurred several times, that if I got up and became involved in some physical activity (for me, working in the yard, or, currently, building some shelves) that in a few minutes I would be energized again.
In other words, when the natural inclination isn’t there, crank yourself up with something that makes demands on the body (not reading, or watching TV) and pretty soon you’re humming.
Obviously, as you get older the endurance factor to keep going is not as strong as it used to be, but the key is to crank it up. If you give in to that feeling of lassitude, days will go by and find you still mired in it, and the feeling of being physically flat persists. It’s the machinery not being used becoming rusty.
The physical activity could be aerobic (a sport, walking, swimming, etc) but it doesn’t have to be; providing the muscles of the body are involved, the feeling of upliftment takes place.
The physiology here is that during physical activity the brain releases a chemical called serotonin which improves one’s mental state.
In my 25 years in the Cayman Islands I noted that there were several cases of very busy, active people who retired, and really took their foot off the gas, and within a few years they were gone. The mental commitment to something, leading to physical activity, seems to help keep the parts in working order.
In the overall, those are the keys: embrace variety in your life, and don’t sit around staring at the TV and grumbling that you feel drained; get into motion, activate the moving parts.
Finally, a loving relationship is also important in keeping the pot bubbling.
While there are certainly examples of individuals who live alone and seem content, the zest for life certainly manifests itself with more fervour in people who have partners, or soul mates, who are involved with the various strands of their mutual life.
Women are generally more forthcoming in admitting the role romantic love plays in the joyous life spirit they exhibit, but many of the men one knows, full of spunk in their later years, will also quietly refer to the importance of love in their fervent embrace of life; they are not happy living alone. I am from that tribe myself.
I read a summation by a psychology writer Gordon Livingston that I subscribe to. He says, “The three components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.” Check someone who is hanging about moping, and you will find at least one of those ingredients missing.