In my personal opinion there is not much joy in living long if you are not living well. Living well has many dimensions to it, including financial, physical, and psychological/spiritual well-being. So when I think about “the next stage”, I am thinking about amplifying both the quantity and quality of the last third of either my life, or the lives of my clients and friends. Easy to define and work on the quantity, (e.g. less sugar, more exercise, etc.) but harder to define and work on the quality. Are we ever sure about what we want or how to live? Quality of life is very subjective and therefore different for all of us. What is very important to you, may be less important to me, or as I said earlier, it may require some digging to even know what we want. Also, because determining and engaging in what would give me more quality and happiness, will require more than learning new skills for how to live, but will demand that I address and challenge old habits and behaviours that are, and will continue undermining my plan for a happy life.
One of the things we need to do in order to live well and long, regarding the psychological/spiritual component of our life, is likely to take a hard look at our habits and behaviours. We need to assess which ones need to be left behind and which ones need to be brought forward to build a strategy for a happy and successful last third of our life, living long and well. This requires personal change, and personal change, when it entails changing habits and behaviours is really hard, and has its limits. Wisdom is knowing what we can’t change, as we recalibrate other aspects of our habits and behaviour. Change is hard because it requires as much unlearning as learning. Many new and healthier habits and behaviours you cannot learn in a sustainable manner, until you have unlearned others. Learning new stuff is relatively easy. Unlearning old habits and behaviours is really tough. Tough because these habits and behaviours that need to be unlearned are largely unconscious, and may have served us well in the past. We are deeply embedded in them. They own us. We don’t own them.
Some of the necessary ingredients required to support the hard work of sustainable personal change are:
Curiosity is a prerequisite for learning and unlearning. Curiosity is the foundation for the skills of adaptability and demonstrating resilience. I am not sure you can teach curiosity. However I do know it is required when making personal change. One has to have a healthy curiosity about the impact one’s behaviour is having on one’s health and relationships. When engaging with most situations in life, you have a choice…to be “right” or to be “curious”.
Building and valuing relationships are key to the good life. As we get older our “stuff” seems less important to us and our relationships more important and valuable. The trouble is we may have invested way more time and energy in developing and applying the skills for making sure we accumulated good stuff, rather than good relationships. Quantity and quality need to be considered here as well. Do we have sufficient and intimate enough relationships to be able to have the requisite conversations that help us work things through?
Stress kills us, and our relationships. We know a lot about the effect of stress on our physical health. A poor response to stress can make us sick. It can also sicken or even kill our important relationships. When under stress, we have less control over our impulses and our need to self-protect. This is when we leak out behaviour that breaks trust between us and others, leading to us feeling isolated.
Feedback is essential for becoming aware of the habits and behaviours that are not helping our cause toward longevity. This is where personal courage comes in, along with curiosity. We have to have the curiosity to know how others see us, and the courage to accept feedback from others that we won’t necessarily like to hear. Once we can hear it, we need to accept that feedback, if we know at some level there is truth in it. Then we have to decide to do something about it.
Mindfulness is a foundational strategy for personal change, or doing something about it. This is both a way of being in the world and a learned skill. Mindfulness is a skill that helps us respond differently to the stressors in our life. Mindfulness is about being present for whatever is happening with us in the moment, without moving quickly to impulse and judgement. Mindfulness is about noticing. Noticing our immediate environment, as well as our habitual response patterns to that environment. A mindful position puts us at choice regarding whether we will act based on those old habits we have, or try something different, or just be there, socially vigilant, dropping the need to immediately act altogether. I believe we need to be most mindful regarding our unconscious desire to protect ourselves through our old beliefs and assumptions, and take a hard look at whether this self-protective mechanism is really required for our well-being now and in the future.
We have a built in immunity to change, that needs to be overthrown. Like the body has an immune system that protects it from disease, it has a similar immunity to change system. This is why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. Our immunity to change system operates as a foot on the brake slowing down and stopping our good intentions. Willpower will only take us so far, than it weakens and wears down. Willpower is designed for short term bursts of new behaviour, but willpower is not sustainable over the longer term. For sustainable long term change, we need to expose our “immunity to change” system, challenge its usefulness, through being mindful of testing new behaviours, and ultimately overthrowing that system.
New habits and behaviours don’t take hold overnight. Ideally, when it comes to overthrowing your immunity to change, you want to evolve from being unconsciously immune to consciously immune, followed by being consciously released to unconsciously released. In other words that final step of being unconsciously released means that you are no longer making any effort to release your foot off the brake. It just doesn’t go there anymore. This process may take weeks or months and will require some kind of support system to keep you on track. This is what AA is all about, and why it is so successful. At any rate you may require a coach to work with you for a few weeks or months, as you test your new behaviours, or you may at least need a support group of friends and/or colleagues to keep your feet to the fire.
Practice, ongoing feedback, practice!