Where do you want to be by the time you’re 50? Or 60? In ten years ? Or twenty? Do you want the future to be exactly like your present situation? Do you want the future to be worse? Most people want to live well. Many of us want to live as well as possible. You wouldn’t be reading this article on this web site at this very moment in your life if you didn’t want more than survival. You want it all.
And if you can’t have it all, then at least you want a future with fewer doubts, fewer regrets and more fulfilment. You want some of your fears to disappear, some of your dreams to come true. In the future, you can be pretty certain there will be uncertainty, but also confident that whatever happens, there will be choice about how you respond. Doing nothing requires effort. Over time, it’s more effort, and less fun, to stay in a place you don’t like than to find a place you really want to be.
Interestingly, research has found the older we are the fewer choices we want. Many people want things to settle down, to be easier, and to be less complicated. You may even conclude the world is becoming too much to get your head around. But it’s not really the world. It’s you. You’ve chosen, at some point, to get older in ways that are voluntary. You don’t have to get a purple rinse. You don’t have to complain of back ache. You don’t have to grow up in ways that will make you unfulfilled.
Four levels of adaptation
My research found four levels of adaptation. You might want to decide which level you have reached. Are you on the verge of collapsing? This may take the form of bankruptcy, permanent unemployment, depression, poor health, unhappiness or even death. Are you surviving? It’s better than collapse because you’re coping but the situation isn’t desirable, it may even be miserable.
Perhaps you are thriving? If you are, then the rewards and benefits of your daily efforts are worthwhile. You are able to win more often than you lose. Better than all these is transcending. Have you found ways of avoiding the obvious problems related to your age, or life stage?
Treat each life stage as a new beginning
Adapting to win is more than simply coping. The evidence is strong that people can choose to joyfully renew themselves. You can decide to never grow up, to play your own game, to treat each life stage as a new beginning. Or you can decide to wither away, weaker, slower, less interesting, hiding behind layers of making do and putting up. Until you become a stereotype of old age.
My exploration of human adaptability found that there are three steps that always have to be followed for there to be successful, transcendent adaptation.
The first step is to recognise the need for adaptation. It may start with something as simple as recognising that something is wrong, or that you want something better. It’s even better to recognise what is likely to happen years before survival or happiness is threatened. You’re growing older, so reverse that trend with life style choices that exercise your mind, emotions and body.
The second step is to understand the nature of the adaptation needed. It’s easier to recognise vague need to change than to figure out the precise change that’s needed. Dissatisfaction is not enough. You’ll need to ask questions, investigate what’s possible and have confidence in your human nature – your ability to imagine better ways of living. Try and understand the difference between normal aging with its normal compromises, and what is really possible. You don’t have to be ordinary.
The third step is to make the required adaptation. If there is no change there will be an unhappy ending rather than another new beginning. Don’t feel guilty because you have tried and failed in the past. Write a list of what you really want, and what you’ve attempted, then think about what you can learn about how to succeed in the future. Examine carefully examples of people who have achieved what you want. Seek inspiration and wisdom in the details of other people’s lives.
A major research study found that wisdom is most closely related to life satisfaction past the age of 50. By wisdom, I mean your ability to see to the heart of important problems without denial, and to be able to empathise with other people, and behave warmly and considerately towards them. Most people become less connected to the world as they grow older, and less patient with learning. Turn this around.
Your efforts to improve your future should focus on the smallest possible changes to create the biggest possible long-term impact. Invest time in yoga and pilates now and you’ll still be able to touch your toes when you’re 80. Invest effort into a second career and you’ll still be able afford to travel to Florida when you’re 90. Learn how to play and keep playful and you’ll still want to visit Disney World as part of your trip, instead of moaning about the heat, and the queues and the prices.