“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”
The English poet Robert Browning was well qualified to cheer on aging. He lived for 77 years at a time when life expectancy was about 40. Surely, he had good genes and his optimism was part of his longevity, but what else does it take? Modern medicine and medical research has led us to be quite knowledgeable about what it takes to age successfully.
Rosemary Laird, MD, geriatrician at the Centre for Senior Health, believes adopting a “continuous quality improvement” mindset is pivotal to achieving health goals. Continually seeking to improve is how the world’s best corporations create top-notch goods and services. So why don’t we focus on ourselves with the same strategy?
Dr. Laird has created a calendar of health with a new focus each month. We’ll mark each month with a post that gives you concrete examples of ways to achieve a health goal — and make it sustainable for the other 11 months.
“If you want to be proactive, these 12 goals are a way to take control of your health,” Dr. Laird said.
This December, celebrate your health and think of ways to build celebration into all aspects of your improvement plan in the year to come. Changing your behavior is hard. But having a roadmap and the right attitude can make it just a little easier.
The Power of Celebration
Dr. Laird, who is also executive medical director of the Florida Hospital for Seniors program, says recognizing our own progress should be part of any self-improvement plan.
“You’ll go further in your health improvement journey if you pause along the way to congratulate yourself,” she said.
Planning to celebrate might feel like a distraction at best, and wasteful at worst. Time spent having fun, this thinking goes, is time not spent actually making progress.
But evidence and experience suggest otherwise. Brain science in particular has found that our attitudes and emotions can have profound effects on our behavior. Good feelings matter.
Our brain uses the chemical dopamine as a reward; once we link it with an action, we tend to want to repeat that action. Celebration can trigger the release of dopamine and similar chemicals, creating a link between your progress and your happiness.
In other words, if you praise yourself for making progress, you’ll reinforce that behavior. The goal is to cultivate healthy habits, so you’re rewarded for doing well.
Finally, be happy for its own sake. Celebrating can reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which brings a host of negative health effects.
You don’t need to consider brain chemicals to set up a plan to celebrate. Though there’s not a wrong way to celebrate, there are ways to be more effective.
One of the advantages of setting a goal to celebrate is that it’s easy to get motivated. Who needs convincing to have fun?
Pick an activity that you enjoy, though if you typically reward yourself with food, use moderation or consider new celebration habits. Ideas include a day at the spa, new clothes or plan a night out with a spouse or friends.
When you’re thinking about how to celebrate your own accomplishments, consider the kind of praise that motivates you best.
Take the example of how to praise a spouse for making dinner. Think about how you’d feel about generic praise such as “This tastes good!”
Compare that with praise for a specific action: “I appreciate how you took time to make a healthy and delicious meal for our family.”
Both are nice, but one shows some personal attention.
When you’re celebrating a success, use it as an opportunity to think about what you did, specifically, to succeed. Perhaps you ran even when you didn’t feel like it, or saw a nutritionist to create a diet plan.
Much of the modern research into praise has centered on the classroom, a place where it’s easy to find ways to be negative. One popular teaching theory suggests a ratio of five positive statements for each corrective statement.
Educational methods reinforce this celebrate-as-you-go mindset by teaching that specific praise reinforces specific behavior.
Celebrating your progress is great, but celebrating your process — how you made progress — can ultimately be more effective.
Emotions are contagious. People are social creatures and cannot help but mirror the feelings they see.
It might seem impossible to measure the effects of celebration on others, but researchers have found answers in an unlikely place: sports.
In one study, researchers looked at video of high-pressure soccer shootouts (in which each team takes turns taking a shot on the goal). If a successful shooter threw his arms in the air to celebrate, his teammates were more likely to score on their shots.
Emotion sharing may have real-world impacts in basketball, too. Another study found that when teammates touched each other, including high-fives and back slaps, they played more cooperatively and won more games.
A health goal is often a personal one, but celebration can be done with others. And it can create a positive feedback loop that sustains both of you.
Celebrate Along the Way
Setting a specific, long-term health goal can be effective. But most health gains are not all-or-nothing.
You may have a goal to reduce your blood pressure to under 140/90, but reductions short of this goal may be helpful, too. In other words, you don’t need to wait for total success to celebrate.
Just as mileposts can mark your progress on a road trip, think of celebrating the small stuff as a way to reinforce your progress.
Though Dr. Laird’s calendar of health lists December as the month for celebrating your success, think about ways you can find enjoyment during the other 11 months, too.
Consider celebrating your progress toward each goal at the end of each month. For example, in May, if you make progress toward an advance directive — perhaps by having a conversation with your spouse or other decision maker about your wishes — take it as an opportunity to pat yourself on the back.
Dr. Laird believes most of our health is determined by the decisions we make outside the doctor’s office. That means doctors have a new job: Helping their patients take their health into their own hands.
Dr. Laird is a board-certified geriatrician with more than 20 years of experience who can partner with you to take control over your health.
Her team at the Centre for Senior Health in Winter Park is focused on getting to know both their patients and the caregivers so critical to their quality of life. In the year ahead, give yourself permission to celebrate your progress.
To reach Dr. Laird’s Winter Park practice, call (855) 303-DOCS and ask for Dr. Laird. Click to read more from Dr. Laird's Caregiver Series.