For many, family and work take up most of our time and psychosocial energy. Our thoughts are preoccupied with caring for our family, maintaining our house and climbing the career ladder. The pressures to succeed and for validation in a busy, tech-driven world can come at the expense of our health. If we neglect our health during our working years, it can lead to poor health and quality of life in retirement. Retirees are less focused on family and work, but often have health issues that occupy their thoughts or have to care for a sick spouse. This can lead to feeling isolated and lonely, but also to dwelling on their aging circumstances. In addition, the pandemic and America’s political and social climate have led to more stressful and uncertain times.
Whether you’re preoccupied with work and raising a family, or dealing with health issues or loneliness in retirement, or anxious about the world today, there are ways to lead a less stressful and more meaningful life. In his recent book, The Practice of Groundedness, Brad Stulberg says the key to living a good life is to lose yourself in something: “The more you forget about yourself, the better you’ll feel, the better you’ll do, and the better you’ll be”.
There are a number of ways to practice mindfulness and detach from anxious and negative thinking – following a spiritual path, journaling, meditation, or a mind/body movement practice such as Yoga are certainly worthy endeavors. I’ll focus on three, possibly more attainable ways that have helped me get out of my own head and be more present in life.
Developing or learning a new skill and Finding Flow
If you think you’re too old to learn something new, think again. Although it may be difficult for older adults to learn a new skill, it’s worth the effort, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. Vanderbilt says, “becoming a beginner is one of the most life-enhancing things you can do” and can bring major cognitive and emotional benefits.
In fact, studies have found that “deeply engaging in challenging, meaningful activities during free time” can ease anxiety, reduce loneliness and increase positive feelings. When you’re engaged in an enjoyable activity that requires both concentration and skill, you can enter into a “flow” state where you’re so engrossed in the present moment, time seems to pass without notice.
Artistic endeavors like playing a musical instrument or painting can induce flow, as can playing a sport or recreational activity like skiing, running, dancing or golf. For me, golf challenges my mind and body, requiring high levels of concentration and stamina. Walking 18 holes of a golf course usually accounts for 4-6 miles of walking distance. Then, the ability to hit a little white ball down the fairway and ultimately into a small hole takes sustained focus. If I’m playing well, I’m usually immersed into the game and not worried if I hit a bad shot or concerns about work or family. But flow states aren’t just something experienced by artists or athletes. “Flow can happen anytime a person is deeply engaged in a task, especially if they are learning or developing a skill that’s challenging, yet deeply satisfying”. Over time, you gain competency and confidence, which ultimately becomes one of the most fulfilling things we can do with our time.
Helping others or volunteering for a cause that’s important to you
Another way to get out of your head and loosen the grip of anxiety is to help others or volunteer your time towards a worthy cause. Helping others doesn’t have to take a lot of your time, but it does require empathy. It could be a simple act of kindness such as checking in on an older neighbor who lives alone, or providing emotional support to a friend with a phone call. But when you actually set aside a good portion of time to volunteer in your community or help another person, you’ll find that it’s a very good way to move the focus away from you. Research shows that “those who consistently help other people or volunteer for a worthy cause experience less depression, greater calm, fewer pains, and better health”. And they may even live longer.
Getting outdoors and into nature
Since walking is the most essential of all human movements, the best thing you can do for your health and happiness is to walk! And, if you get outdoors and into nature, even better. No matter your age, or where you live, most people have the ability to get outside and go for a walk. Yet most of us don’t. “The average American spends 90% of their life indoors, usually in a state of idleness”. Inactivity and isolation have led to increases in depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
During the first year of the pandemic when anxiety was running high and shelter-in-place and social distancing orders were in effect, I made sure I got outdoors every day. I went on regular walks or met up with friends for a run or to play golf. To this day, I regularly walk on the extensive greenbelt pathways in my hometown of Davis or go on trail runs outside of town in the foothills. When I’m running or hiking a trail, I might be breathing heavily and sweating, but I’m also highly focused on navigating the terrain in front of me. I often end up immersed in the moment and the natural surroundings, and any life worries drift away.
It’s tempting to think that comfort equates to well-being and that if you’re stressed, resting on the couch and binge-watching your favorite TV program will settle your nerves. Maybe so, but studies have shown that prolonged sitting and TV viewing are also associated with depression and loneliness. A better approach for your health and happiness is to get off the couch and engage with life more. Remember, motivation can follow action, or in other words, “you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good”. Then, it’s important to find ways to break the negative thinking patterns so that we can get out of our head and into our life. It’s up to you to see which one works best, so that you can look back on your life without any regrets.