Confession: I have a tendency to seek comfort, to do things that don’t require too much of me. I like exercise that doesn’t involve sweat. I will always choose walking over running; don’t get me started on that hot yoga nonsense. (Perspiring in close proximity to strangers? Um, no.)
My reading and viewing options also reflect this desire for comfort. I’m partial to women’s fiction, to a cadre of beloved authors and creators.
But if I want a thriving, active brain in the years ahead, I’m probably going to need to learn to mix it up, push myself out of my comfort zone. I learned this from reading an article that draws on hard science: “How to Become a Superager” by Lisa Feldman Barrett. (Another confession: the catchy title drew me in.)
I’m glad it did, as the question Barrett and her fellow brain researchers ask is one for the ages: “Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline?” One likely answer: by pushing themselves — physically and mentally — to the point of discomfort. Her express orders: ‘You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.” Notes Barrett:
In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Pretty big, right? The message I hear: perhaps it’s time to try that hard class at the gym, actually go for a run with my family. (They all run but me. I’m also the one most likely to forget a name. Coincidence?)
Then there’s the mental push part. I feel fairly good about my recent efforts: teaching myself blogging software, taking classes and reading some actual nonfiction. (And what I learn stays with me. Sam Quinone’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was unforgettable, an eye-opening look at the complex forces that converged to cause a national crisis. Highly recommend.)
Still, I can be lazy on the really hard stuff. The science part of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s article? Skimmed it in search of the conclusion — which, ironically, basically told me to challenge my brain and not skip the hard science stuff.
I already chose a guiding word for 2017: Create. I love this word and all that it promises. To create my own work, yes, but also revel in the creativity of others, in their art, movies, novels, plays. All my happy things.
But as brain researchers point out, happy and content may not be enough to keep one nimble. So I’m adding another goal word for 2017: Push. Which means pushing myself in the way I seek out artists/authors, in my own writing, in how I exercise my body and brain.
Push, create, repeat. (Though I’m not sure I’ll ever get to hot yoga. Everyone’s got to draw a line somewhere.)
Note: my first published piece of the new year — “The Lasting Impact of One Last Thing” — is up on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station. That one required a dive into some emotional waters. It’s about our missing dog, a frantic search, a meal made with love… things lost and found. It’s also one of my favorites. I hope you’ll check it out.