Note: In this second part of a three-part series adapted from the upcoming book Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy, author and clinician Andrea Brandt looks at how to increase awareness of what brings you joy. Click here to read Part I.
For many people, turning 50 is just the beginning of great things: Pablo Picasso was 55 when he painted Guernica, and much of his best work was still ahead of him. Enlightenment philosopher John Locke was a few years older when he began to publish the culmination of a lifetime of study and thought, including his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Other historical and cultural figures made new starts when they were even older. Although Cornelius Vanderbilt had already made a fortune in steamships, he was 70 when he bought his first railroad. And J. R. R. Tolkien was 62 when he published The Lord of the Rings.
Less famous people also take on new challenges in later life. Barbara Hillary, a retired nurse and two-time cancer survivor, decided at 75 that she’d like to see the North Pole and raised $25,000 to make the trip, becoming the first African American woman to visit there. Taking up mountaineering in his 70s, Bill Painter became the oldest person to reach the summit of Mount Rainier at age 81. He made the climb an annual event—the last time he was 84.
“The questions people ask at earlier stages of life become more profound at these later stages,” says Stewart Friedman, founding director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. “Am I living the life I want to live? What is most important to me? Who is most important to me? You see the end, and so you think about what you want to do with the time that you have remaining.”
If there’s something you dream of doing but you think you’re too old or you lack the talent or skills, dare to discover otherwise. The stories I’ve recounted here provide just a taste of the energy and spirit of those who have the strength and determination to stay healthy, happy, and relevant regardless of expectations or diagnosis. These people are following new dreams—dreams they never knew they had until they became propelled by a need and a mission to stay vital. The older we get, the more crucial it becomes to savor every moment. More than ever, we need to live like we mean it. If not now, then when? What are you waiting for?
Finding the Life We Love
When you’re considering who and what to keep in your life as you grow older, a key criterion must be what sparks your joy. So as you go through the day or mindfully recall other times in your life, what creates joy should jump out at you. Joy’s message is “Choose this! This is true for you!”
Feeling the sparkle of joy is an indication that we are in touch with our true self. That’s why joy is an excellent barometer for making decisions and setting goals. Emotions are energy. Their job is to attract our attention to what is going on for us in the present moment, prompt us to make decisions, and give us the fuel to act. Before we can make joy a goal and get our radar set for it, we have to know what we’re looking for.
To find what we truly love, we also have to get beyond the barriers of the rational mind and experience things from our heart. This requires being in a state of wonder or innocence. Some spiritual traditions refer to this as “beginner’s mind”—a mind not tainted or occupied by past experiences and therefore free from categorizing a new experience before we can explore it more fully for what it is. The only way to give our heart a chance to respond is to get the mind out of the way.
Like a dog on a walk, venturing wherever his senses and curiosity take him, we need to intentionally be awake to the details all around us and find the wonderful in the ordinary. If you want to see joy, go to a park or schoolyard where little children are fully engaged and delighted in the present moment. Notice that it doesn’t take anything particularly special to evoke this feeling for them.
The same is true for us. Almost anything in our day-to-day routine can recall to us the continuous state of wonder we experienced as children. The fact is, we too often don’t take the time to experience what’s around us: to look up from our keyboard to see the sunset outside our window or listen to the rain, to put a book aside and play with the cat or the dog, to savor the components of our dinner instead of just shoveling them down so we can get on to something “more important.”
Two Strategies for Finding Your Joy
Be fully where you are in this moment. Is it light or dark, cold or hot? If you’re not comfortable, why not? If you’re smiling, what stimulated that good feeling? Whatever your scenery or experience, indoors or out, take time to enjoy it. It’s all part of being human, and you can savor it as such. If we embrace and move through each day with gratitude, we can live a happy and fulfilling life, no matter what is happening. We need to begin with a real acceptance and appreciation of the whole human journey, before we can note the things that give us particular joy.
Stay Vigilant to Please Yourself. Following your heart’s desire, your “bliss,” as mythologist Joseph Campbell called it, means being committed to doing what brings you joy. If you’re someone with a strong pattern of people-pleasing or being overly concerned about what other people think, take this opportunity to leave that pattern behind. The greatest reward for you will be living your own life. And that’s the way it should be—it’s your life! The fact of the matter is we’re most powerfully helpful to others when we’re coming from our true self. To do that, we must know what’s true for us and live and act from that place. Shedding our concerns about others’ opinions is often one of the blessings of older age.
Choose Based on What You Love. We’re always making choices, every minute of the day—not just by what we do, but also by what we don’t do. What are your choices committing you to? What are they choosing in favor of? To create the life we love, we must stay vigilant to ensure that our choices come from what we love or will love rather than from our fears, insecurities, and self-doubts. Ask yourself, “What is motivating me here?” Set your new standard as making choices that go toward what you love and be disciplined in adhering to it. It will make all the difference.
Living Your Dream
Once you know what brings you joy, you have to convert it into a meaningful plan that you can implement in your daily life—a plan that will infuse every day with joy. Begin doing it “on purpose.” Create a mantra for yourself that names it and allows you to own your love for it and to pursue it—whatever it is. Here are just a few examples to illustrate what I mean:
- “I love painting”
- “I love to dance”
- “I love playing bridge”
- “I love petting my dog”
- “I love walking in nature”
- “I love spending time with family and friends”
- “I love helping young people by sharing my wisdom”
- “I love being a voice for women’s empowerment”
- “I love performing random acts of kindness”
- “I love being an instrument and messenger of love”
Go ahead and name what lights your fire! The more you own it, the more focus you will put on it, which will help you create it more solidly in the world. And this is key, because a dream isn’t real until you’re living it. While that doesn’t mean its reality depends on completing the job or arriving at the finish line, it does mean that you’re actively doing something to move in that direction. Action is what ultimately brings dreams to life. Without action, we’re just dreaming. And dreaming the dream, though it may feel safer, is not nearly as satisfying as living the dream. To have a life you love, you must actually live your dreams.
Andrea Brandt, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, California. She’s the author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness and Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom.
This blog is adapted from Andrea Brandt’s upcoming book, Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life after 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy.
Stay tuned for PART III of this series...