Every week I do a report for my FLAFF (Footloose and Fancy Free) friends. As I’ve described in a previous post, the report is based on Martin Seligman’s book, Flourish, where he explores what it takes to thrive in life.
There’s a story Seligman tells. He had identified a four-pronged approach to flourishing: (1) having positive emotions, (2) engaging deeply in activities, (3) experiencing a meaningful life and (4) having strong and affirming relationships. Then a colleague said, “There’s something seriously missing here.” She described how she personally thrives on having a sense of accomplishment. Eureka, said Seligman, and from there the fifth prong was included. A formula for living a full life was in place.
I’ve been doing this report for over two years now and over time have become highly attuned to the nuances of the five ingredients. Like Seligman’s offsider, I find accomplishment is a key driver for me. My brain needs it in order to flourish.
Perhaps that’s why I approached retirement, over six years ago, with a certain hesitation. Back in those days, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to reflect on accomplishment. I was too busy running a business, listening intently to clients, designing unusual training programs, and training staff. My brain didn’t get a moment of down-time. Accomplishment was the air I breathed.
And then I parachuted into the green pastures of retirement. My brain was dead-set grateful—on its knees with the pleasure of taking long breaths, riding waves, standing in the garden with a hose. Happy day! I soon stopped worrying about the old cliché of retiring and finding yourself dead six months later. I stopped worrying about anything, really. I could do well without the overdose of accomplishment I’d been used to.
But perhaps some balance was required. Around this time I read an article called The Secrets to Longevity. “Learn something new,” the author said. “Take up ballroom dancing, chess, a language or photography.” She went on to quote the director of the Center on Aging at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Any time you have to work at something new you’re doing good things for your brain. People who learn new skills or information build new brain cells and make connections between existing neurons.”
I recognised that if my brain and I were going to continue to support one another, I needed to keep it stimulated. So I joined a writers’ group and for two years wrote a short story every week. That experience gave me the confidence to write and publish Shedders. I joined a community choir and found my lobes and cortexes tested in ways I’d never dreamed of.
My brain expressed great interest in these things; although it had enjoyed its sleepy-time, it perked up with the new challenges.
Years later, I am still cajoling my brain into regular exercise. 2014 has been particularly effective and I’d like to share with you three of the startling things I’ve taken on.
The best one began with an invitation from housemate Michael to work with him while he trialed a new coaching approach—all I needed was a project. I tried to invent something mighty or healthy or contribution-oriented, but then my gaze wandered to the Yamaha keyboard I’d purchased a few years ago in response to some call of the wild. It dawned on me that I’d bought it because I wanted to play it.
I’d had lessons and enjoyed practicing piano as a child and a young adult, then went off to a piano-free dorm at Uni and never really went back. The idea of relearning piano suddenly enraptured me and I knew I had my project. It’s magic. My keyboard is touch-sensitive and on the setting Grand Piano 01, it sounds better than any other piano I can every remember playing. I love my time on the piano stool. I thump my way up and down scales, and can feel my fingers strengthening and learning the width of the keys and the length of an octave. I tackle complex pieces I may never master, but they train me in correct fingering. I practice sight-reading from a big book of simple arrangements of popular old songs. Sometimes while dinner is being prepared at our home you might think you were in a piano bar. You would likely assess the music as minimalist and somewhat discordant, but conclude that the pianist is having a wonderful time.
As you can see, I could wax on for much longer but the point is this:I’ve discovered something that makes my brain sit up and take notice. I can practically hear the synapses clicking and snapping while new neuronal pathways slide into existence.
The second challenge I’ve given my brain is Lumosity. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of it because I’m always encountering it advertised on the ‘Net. A trusted friend had purchased the program and spoke highly of it, so I thought, well, it can’t do me any harm and might be fun.
Thus you’ll find me at my computer for a few minutes each day feeding fish, playing pinball, spotting birds, performing maths calculation and directing trains to the correct station. I couldn’t swear to you that my increasing skill at the games translates into improved skills in real life, but, you know, again I can feel that ruckus going on just above the base of my skull where the cerebellum lives.
The third challenge I’ve taken on gives me surprises from another quarter. A few months ago I began aquarobics classes at the Taree pool, which you’d think would be purely physical. But instead I find myself doing complex routines—forward, TUCK, back, TUCK, left, TUCK, right, TUCK —and my brain, which had been hoping to snooze while the body did the work, is very busy indeed. Even now, it’s trying to make sense of a routine we encountered in the pool yesterday. I’m hoping it will be sorted before next Tuesday when I hit the water again.
From these challenges, I notice quite a number of things. One is that I’m enjoying this year. These new learning projects agree with me. And if I scratch under the surface of that enjoyment, I find accomplishment.
So when I do my Flourish reports, under the heading of Accomplishment I cite things like, “I put 3 wheelbarrows of clippings through the mulcher”. But I also say: “Played piano and did Lumosity every day,” and they’re the ones that really resonate, that make me feel like I’m accomplishing. It’s good to be learning.
So I ask: What secret desires call to you? What have you been putting off learning for fear it will take over your life? What would make you feel gloriously accomplished, even from your first tentative try? Your brain won’t much care what you choose; it just likes creating new neural pathways.
What will you start today?