I have been pondering about life lately, or should I say aging well? Like a mason building a wall, all of us can build the life we want with the right tools. The secret resides in being aware of our values and gaining an understanding of what truly matters over time. But let’s face it, our current routines, the rat race, and inertia get in the way of our best intentions. We work hard to make a living, take care of our children, our partner, our parents, as well as to pay for life’s necessities, and not to mention all the planning that goes into the ever elusive retirement. So let’s make it easier on ourselves, and talk about the bare minimum we need to do to build a good life. Get off the treadmill for just a few minutes, and take a walk with me instead to discover how things should be…
In her book Life Reimagined The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty ponders the very same question. She searches for a map, a recipe book of sort–a life worth building. The book gives you a lot to think about, and its findings mirror what I witnessed in my work as a therapist as well.
So how do you build a good life?
To start off you build meaningful relationships. Social bonds play an essential role in your satisfaction in life, benefiting not just your date book but your physical and mental health as well. Social media has taken over, and sadly often replaces one-on-one get-togethers. Science shows that we human beings are first and foremost social animals. We cannot build a good life without friendship. We need to bond, share, nurture and mentor each other. I make time to speak to my friends on the phone, and seize every opportunity I can for a get-together. Want to improve your social life? Initiate! Every week, commit to inviting a friend or acquaintance to join you on walk, an exercise class, a lecture or just for a coffee.
Choose environments that foster mastery. We all have environments that are more beneficial to us than others. Placing ourselves in such a physical setting, promotes wellness and growth. My family and I once moved to a new environment for employment. Although the setting was quite beautiful, we found it hard to enjoy the same social life we had in past locations. The locals were just more reserved and less social. After a valiant effort, we eventually left and had no problem finding our social niche thereafter in a new location.
Accept yourself as you are. I see a lot of people struggling with that. We are often most unkind to ourselves, while so generous to a stranger or a friend. I have become very comfortable with my strengths and weaknesses. How did I do it? I see life as one big lesson, and I am an eternal student. If I achieve perfection, I stop learning, and that would make me sad. I would much rather be imperfect and learn from my mistakes. Give yourself permission to be imperfect, acknowledge what you want to work on without judgement, and see failures as opportunities for growth.
Independence in actions and thoughts. People get really sad when they perceive a sense of loss of control. I am definitely in love with my sense of independence, my autonomy in all things like thoughts, work and family life. This does not mean that I don’t enjoy collaboration. Indeed, working with others, hearing their thoughts and ideas feeds my soul. All it means is that I don’t depend on anyone’s approval to feel whole. This comes back, to accepting myself in all my imperfections. A long time ago, I was sitting in a waiting room at an event when an other mom struck up a conversation with me. Truth be told, I don’t remember much about our conversation except for this one comment she said: “you should not worry about what people think, because the truth is they don’t.” Realizing that the only one accepting judgement is you is freeing. It gives you the right to respectfully decline anyone’s opinion of you, and to go on with the business of living your life as you see fit.
Be an eternal learner. Just like your body needs movement, your brain loves to grow new connections and strengthen old ones. Learning through intellectual pursuits, challenging physical and mental activities, and interpersonal relationships will make these brain connections stronger. It helps your mental abilities stay sharp throughout the aging process. How do you do that? Learn a new language, take a dance class, do puzzles, have a board game night, write a novel or a poem, become ambidextrous, balance on one foot when you brush your teeth…whatever breaks your routine and challenges both your mind and body.
Find your purpose. Most of us do better when we have direction. I found real meaning in my work as a therapist, and before that as a mother. Life since my children has always made sense to me. Studying and practicing occupational therapy was a direct extension of how I parented them, I helped them through creativity, playfulness, listening skills, constant exploring and learning. As a therapist and a coach, I apply the same approach with each client. I am above all a mentor and a coach, that is my purpose no matter where life brings me.
Barbary Bradley Hagerty’s book is a good compilation of the latest research about building a life that can carry us smoothly and happily through the chapters of our lives. I am a big proponent of spending time with friends, being kind to yourself, and learning new skills. I also think we benefit when we give back to the community through in person actions (cutting a check does not cut it–pardon the pun!), and most of all we need to slow down and enjoy each moment. It’s the small actions we take with awareness, on a daily basis, that give us satisfaction and provide us the fuel we need to feel fulfilled and build a good life.
I hope this article is helpful to you, drop me a line and let me know what steps you’ve taken towards building a good life.
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