Aging and the art of New Year’s resolutions

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By Sondra L. Shapiro

I am ambivalent when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. Why begin the new year saddled with have-tos? Isn’t it easier to just spread out goals and objectives throughout the year so they don’t pile up into one big stressful burden? Consider, 45 percent of us make New Year’s promises — and after six months, less than half of us keep them. Since the success rate of keeping resolutions isn’t very high, why do we keep setting ourselves up for failure?

Human nature.

We are an optimistic species. Though some cynics would say we have short memories. We look at the new year as an opportunity to begin anew; wipe the slate clean. We can lose weight, get more organized, practice frugality, enjoy life, exercise, stop smoking, meet that special someone or spend more time with family — to name some of the more popular New Year’s resolutions.

What would New Year’s Eve be without setting goals and objectives? Like the ball falling in Times Square and noisemakers, resolution-making is part of the holiday tradition.

Perhaps, it is better to make a resolution than to not address an issue because at least recognizing the problem can lead to an attempt to solve it. A resolution after all is a commitment.

It’s not the setting of goals that bothers me about the holiday tradition, it’s more about how the process can be so emotionally difficult for people. Though, in this case, I think older people actually have an edge.

The older I get, the more complacent I become. I am willing to accept the status quo for the sake of comfort. I’m not as hard on myself; my needs are less complicated.

The accumulating years — a time defined by career building and the pursuit of material goods — are behind me. I, like many of my cohorts who have reached a phase of life when living in the moment and good health is more important than all the material stuff we have accumulated, don’t want one more have-to cramping my style.

I reached that stage of life more than two years ago, when my husband and I decided the home we so lovingly built 20 years before was suddenly far too big for us; its upkeep eating up far too much of our time. In the beginning, we were so happy to have enough space and a big yard to fit our lifestyle. Then one day we realized there were rooms we never entered unless it was to dust and vacuum. And the yard we enjoyed cultivating became an unwanted obligation that got in the way of us having fun. After we sold the house, we felt a major burden lifted. The physical process of unburdening matched the emotional need to simplify our lives.

I believe this simplification is shared by most entering the later stage of life. We downsize our homes, consider less stressful work or employment that has more meaning for us. We give away much of what we have accumulated. We de-clutter our expectations, putting fewer burdens on ourselves.

This discarding of clutter feels like stealing time — an exuberant state that can be addicting. Perhaps that’s why older people are happier than younger folks, as many studies have found. Research done by Stony Brook University found that after age 50, life perceptions are more positive and feelings of worry or stress decline — regardless of certain life circumstances. Also, stress and anger showed declines throughout life. The pattern for worry, another negative emotion, tended to hold steady until about age 50, when it took a sharp decline.

Keeping it simple doesn’t mean giving up. Rather it allows the freedom to set goals and objectives that are true to us instead of what we think others expect. After all, getting older also means caring less what others think of us. “Who are we trying to impress anyway?” is a sentiment I have so often heard from older people.

This is not to say that older age means we stop desiring or growing. One of the most important things we should not get rid of during our de-cluttering years is our desire to learn.

So for those of us who are still inclined to follow the New Year’s resolution tradition, there are hundreds of books and blogs to use as guides. And since it is simplicity I am advocating, there is no need to clutter up your hours with research. I already did that for you.

First, keep the goal simple to enhance the probability of success, and be specific. Want to lose weight? Decide how much and stick to that. Keep track of progress through a journal or other means. No matter what your resolution, be generous with yourself. Don’t expect perfection and don’t be too strict or you won’t succeed. Allow for backsliding along the way. Reward yourself occasionally for progress. Find and offer support among friends and family.

Be open to a change in direction. As you go through the process of achieving, you are also learning new things about yourself. Like with most things in life, we can’t see into the future and plan for everything. Some things are a process. A diet may turn out to be a bad thing when our health suffers or we don’t look as good as when we were carrying a few extra pounds.

Failing to achieve a resolution is also a learning experience if we ask ourselves why. So be flexible. Be accepting. But most important, be happy. To me, that is the simplest, most achievable resolution I can make. One that doesn’t cramp my new style of life.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at sshapiro.fiftyplusadvocate@verizon.net. And follow her online at www.facebook.com/fiftyplusadvocate, www.twitter.com/shapiro50plus or www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.