The Joy of Letting Go

A couple walking in a European city smiling and looking at each other

I often wonder what’s expected of retirees. If I took everything I read to heart, I would either have not one moment in the day to reflect, or I’d have so much time on my hands, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

My own daily life is somewhere in between. Since I’m still writing, that takes up a good part of the week, and when I think of the 90,000 words it takes to complete a full-length novel, I quiver with fear. I’m not writing as quickly as I did ten years ago, but then time constraints aren’t as big of an issue as when I was juggling teaching and writing. I can structure my days and my weeks at will and that gives me tremendous leeway to be wildly productive or painfully slow.

It’s true for other pursuits as well. The retirement press tells me I should be exercising every day and eating healthy at every single meal. The more vigorously I move, and the healthier I eat, the longer I’ll live, according to most experts. To help me along with my 5,000 steps per day goal, I’ve purchased a Gamin bracelet that records my every move along with pulse, energy levels, sleeping habits and loads of pertinent data that is supposed to help me stay on top of my physical well being. I’ve also installed a treadmill at home, so I don’t even need to leave the house to exercise. The treadmill has many of the same digital information buttons that my Gamin movement tracker displays.

What neither the Gamin nor the treadmill record, however, is how I’m feeling about the world in general, about my friends and relatives, about myself, the people, community and activities that make life worth living.

No machine, at least for now, can quantify those all-important feelings and impressions. My Gamin can’t tell me how sad or happy I am. What I do know is that if I did everything I’m supposed to be doing as an older adult, I wouldn’t have a moment of peace, no time at all to reflect back on my life and what I’d like to accomplish in the future. I would just be careening from one activity to the next, keeping a log of my consumption and my movements while trying to stay afloat financially, maintaining our house in good working order and writing my next novel, all on a fixed, inflexible schedule that would make my head spin and my heart pound.

I must admit to not following a strict schedule these days. I prefer to let my intuition guide my days, which is the exact opposite of what we do when we’re working a full 40, or 50 or more hours per week.

Letting go of a strict schedule is helping me to be a better person. The benefits are that I’m more empathetic. Friendlier. Less judgmental. Not as hard on people. It’s not that I’m less observant or less curious. In fact, it’s the opposite. I now have the energy and the inclination to observe the struggles that others endure, be they health issues, loneliness, disappointment, or just plain old-fashioned bad luck. I’m discovering that full-time work and raising a family –at the same time– is hard on the soul. For decades I was always in a hurry, and everyone in my life paid the price of trying to relate, or calm down, to this driven, time-obsessed single mother who was desperately attempting to pack everything she believed she needed to accomplish into every 24-hour block of white space in her calendar. My watchword was self-control, even when I failed miserably at eating fewer sweets, taking on more work, or disciplining myself to hide my genuine emotions.

In an article for Vox, science reporter Brian Resnick writes, “Effortful restraint, where you are fighting yourself — the benefits of that are overhyped.” Of course, it’s better to exercise than to be a couch potato, but studies indicate that those who actually enjoy exercising are the most successful at it. To put it more simply, Resnick remarks: “The people who said they excel at self-control were hardly using it at all.

“Psychologists Marina Milyavskaya and Michael Inzlicht confirmed and expanded on this idea. In their study, they monitored 159 students at McGill University in Canada in a similar manner for a week. If resisting temptation is a virtue, then more resistance should lead to greater achievement, right? That’s not what the results in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science, found.

“The students who exerted more self-control were not more successful in accomplishing their goals. It was the students who experienced fewer temptations overall who were more successful when the researchers checked back in at the end of the semester. What’s more, the people who exercised more effortful self-control also reported feeling more depleted. So not only were they not meeting their goals, they were also exhausted from trying.

‘There’s a strong assumption still that exerting self-control is beneficial, Milyavskaya, a professor at Carleton University, tells me. ‘And we’re showing in the long term, it’s not.’”

A recent headline in The New York Times expresses it all: Go Ahead. Eat Your Holiday Feelings. For the 2019 holiday season, consider letting go. Self-control might be a burden, that for a least one week in December, you can forget about. Try disarming. Instead, just enjoy a happy holiday.

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