10 Life Hacks for the Over-60s
1.Have plenty of sex: it reduces blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and strokes; it boosts the immune system, improves sleep, reduces stress and enhances self-esteem.
According to a study published in the Journal of American Medicine, men who ejaculate twenty-one or more times a month have a reduced risk of prostate cancer (guys — this works even if you are the only person involved!).
Not least, it feels wonderful and, unless your partner is significantly younger, comes without pre-menopausal anxieties about pregnancy (though sexually-transmitted infections among the over-sixties are on a rapid rise). Getting close — physically and emotionally-to another person seems to become more important as one ages; most research into late middle-aged sex finds that intimacy is the most commonly-sought benefit from lovemaking.
2. Get rid of ‘stuff’: and stop buying more things. Stuff doesn’t just physically litter our lives and homes, it creates more stuff that needs done, burning up our valued time in searching for the right coffee filters, waiting for that auto part to arrive from Germany, ordering a new hard drive or schlepping a bunch of expensive clothes to the dry cleaners. Profoundly wise yet mad-as-a-box-of-frogs author James Altucher captures this brilliantly in this piece entitled Two Weird Tricks That Save My Life.
Getting rid of a chunk of life’s flotsam also means that you can downsize. I’ve gone from ‘owning’ a 5-bedroom detached house (in reality the bank owned a good 50% of it) to renting a two-bedroom apartment in a couple of gut-wrenching moves. In the process, I’ve got rid of 80% of my books, most of my clothes, ornaments, furniture…everything. I’m so much happier and continue to throw things out, daily whenever I can.
After forty years of owning a car I got rid of mine and, in total honesty, have not missed it once. I’ve saved a fortune in repairs, parking tickets, insurance and so forth whilst mitigating the stress associated with staying on top of those logistics. Instead, I use public transport intensively, subscribe to a car club for cost-effective shorter trips and use regular hire cars for the occasional weekend away. I discovered I liked going home on the tube at 12.30 on a Friday or on the night bus at 2am, hob-nobbing with all the demented revellers and pissed students instead of returning sober hermetically sealed in my own metal box.
3. Learn to want what you have: a simple powerful habit of positive self-persuasion described in philosopher John Armstrong’s marvellously useful book How To Worry Less About Money. It’s an invitation to make peace with where you’ve got to in your life, which doesn’t mean having no ambitions, hopes or desires, more just gently letting go of those endlessly nagging ‘wants’ that generate an insidious undercurrent of dissatisfaction.
Armstrong links this to the practice of Learning not to want what other people want which, whilst not easy, has the potential to liberate us from the middle-class money-trap: “Individuals in the middle class accumulate more debt as they become more successful. Their wage income comes in and is spent on current expenses and only then on paying off their personal debt…as their income increases, so does their personal debt. This is what we call the rat race.” from Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, quoted in this great blog about managing finances.
Armstrong urges us to reflect on our emotional relationship with money — and provides simple practical tools to help us do so. Late middle age offers clear opportunities to radically simplify this part of our lives, along with many others.
4. Slow Down Time: which appears to speed up as you get older. This is totally subjective, of course, a perception; Professor of Clinical Psychology Richard A. Freidman, writing in the New York Times calls it ‘a big fat cognitive illusion’.
This is not only because — relative to the time we’ve already lived through — there’s that much less of it left. Psychologist William James, in his 1890 text Principles of Psychology, wrote that as we age, time seems to speed up because adulthood is accompanied by fewer and fewer memorable events: “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.” So try continually subjecting yourself to new experiences, however small, to create distinct memories.
It’s not about skydiving grannies; it’s about walking when you would take a bus or metro (at weekends I sometimes walk into the centre of London from where I live — a 90-minute walk — taking a different route each time). Friedman’s solution: “It’s simple: if you want time to slow down…learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel.”
Practicing yoga, meditation or mindfulness are effective too; there’s nothing like being fully present in each moment to make each tiny parcel of time a distinct experience. Plus, the moments when we actually have a problem are surprisingly rare; as Mark Twain said towards the end of his life: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
5. Wear a ‘uniform’: by now you should know what suits you. Apple’s Steve Jobs was well-known for wearing the same outfits every day, as is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (trainers/jeans/black polo neck & t-shirt/jeans/hoodie respectively). Zuckerberg explained his reasoning durning a public online Q&A last November: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible”. Barack Obama has pared his wardrobe down to a collection of identical suits.
‘Uniform’ dressing is not just about decluttering your decision-making capacity, focusing your finite attention on the things that matter. It’s also a way to radically simplify and shrink what for most of us has become another big bucket of stuff — our clothes, shoes and accessories.
I now wear the same Uniqlo jeans every day. I buy a couple of new pairs every six months (I never wash jeans — or my face, for that matter)and give the used ones to charity) My day-to-day life functions perfectly well with just five ‘proper’ shirts (from Oliver Spencer), the same number of sweaters/tops and a bunch of t-shirts (summer) and thermal vests (winter) again from Uniqlo.
6. Tap into your True Self: the best definition of maturity I’ve ever heard went something along the lines of: it’s the point where you stop running your life on the basis of what you’ve been told and base it on what you know.
We tend to spend the first half of our ‘adult’ lives building a persona based around trying to satisfy the expectations of our parents, educators and the other adults who were significant influences when we were growing up. This is surely the source of many ‘mid-life’ crises; a repudiation of the identity we’ve been building since adolescence, a growing awareness that this is ‘not the real me’. “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood”, as the poet Dante put it. Late middle age is the time to find our own path out of the ‘dark wood’, to declutter our identity as well as our home.
One really useful, practical technique is to try quietly observing our chattering forebrain, the ‘monkey brain’ that is constantly churning over inconsequential and superficial ‘thoughts’. After a while, we realise that someone is doing the observing, a more fundamental, calm self beneath the surface tension of contemporary mental life. It may not be as simple as saying that the observing someone is our true self, though it certainly feels palpably more authentic. It is quite possibly the seed of someone more like us, and the more we experience it, the stronger it seems to grow. “Cultivate the witness”, is how Buddhists describe the process.
7. Be Honest: this comes naturally to very young children, often to hilarious effect. In later life it can be devastatingly powerful. So many of our social exchanges are based on dishonesty; I used to work in an agency where all anyone ever said in response to the question ‘how are you’ was ‘I’m really well’. It just wasn’t credible that seventy-five people were all in tip-top physical and emotional condition all of the time.
As American-style politically correct, prissily euphemistic ways of acting and speaking become increasingly predominant throughout Western cultures (and beyond) the problem is only getting worse.
Saying it like it is cuts through the crap. It creates an instant bond with the right people, the ones you really want to connect with.
And it makes you feel authentic, real.
8 Stop consuming news or watching TV: news is by no means the same as knowledge, as the recent Fox News fiascos over Birmingham and Paris highlighted. The Fox slant is extreme for sure, though it’s only a matter of degree; I find BBC News, with its simpering middle-class presenters, saccharine worldview and hand-wringing ‘concern’, just as offensive.
News — certainly in its current mainstream media form — alerts us to a stream of traumatic events about which we can do absolutely nothing. The humiliating first-world truth is that our comfortable lives will continue precisely as they did before we heard about that civil war, this plane crash, the other celebrity divorce.
At this stage in your life, participating vicariously in global guilt is a foolish indulgence unless you are Bob Geldof (in which case it’s just foolish). I’m all for real involvement, actual actions. But if all that’s triggered is a sheepish call to a number that’s flashing on the screen and the tapping-in of debit card details, then I’d rather not know.
I haven’t consumed any mainstream news for three years or so — as for the effects, I could not agree more with Rolf Dobelli, the author of this Guardian piece: “less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights.”
I’ve taken this media detox one stage further; I haven’t had an actual TV signal for about three years, either, and I meet an increasing number of people who say the same thing. It doesn’t mean I don’t watch stuff on an oversized flat-screen monitor. I do. It just comes from Netflix and iTunes, via Apple TV. I never, ever, settle in for ‘a night in front of the box’. My parents’ knee-jerk complaint from half-a-century ago is now a given; there really is nothing worth watching on telly tonight. Or any other night.
9. Stop seeing people you don’t like: or who don’t like you.
You are no longer required or obliged to hang out with people for ‘social’ reasons. You can do what you like. I cheerfully recommend not bothering with a ‘social life’ at all; avoiding dinner parties and quasi-formal gatherings like the plague, politely declining invitations to events you feel you ought to be at but actually can’t bear, and steering clear completely of those toxic individuals whom you can practically feel draining your life-force.
Whatever your Facebook profile might suggest, most people can only really keep on top of a handful of friendships: these should have filtered themselves out by now. You know who they are.
10. Reach an accommodation with death: as Woody Allen said: “I am not afraid of death; I’d just rather not be there when it happens”. We have a profoundly unhealthy relationship with death in Western cultures; denying it, sweeping it under the carpet, smothering it in platitudes so we don’t have to see it for what it is.
We are an unprecedented generation, blessed by levels of health and fitness most of our parents would have thought of as exceptional at our age. Old age proper has indeed been postponed, gifting us a whole new phase of life for which, thus far, there is no template or plan. It’s so new, it doesn’t even have a name. It is ours to enjoy. And I happen to think it is that much more enjoyable in the full awareness of what’s coming — though that’s still not necessarily on the cards until the end of the life-phase after this one.
I don’t believe you can live well if you have an unhealthy relationship with death. And living well — in the fullest sense, in the way the ancient Greeks captured it in the concept of eudaemonia — is what it’s all about.