The limbic brain is the part of the brain that runs our emotions, and in many ways it's the most important brain component we have. Complex emotions from the limbic brain are one reason mammals dominate the earth and reptiles don't. The reptilian brain (the purely physical brain) has control centers for fear and aggression; it runs on negative reinforcement. The limbic brain (the emotional brain) invented love, joy and play in mammals. It lets us love our young and work in groups. A third part of the brain (the neocortical, or thinking, brain) speaks the language of thought, words and problem solving.
These three aspects of the brain are intricately wired together, but careful research has shown that most of the time our emotions are in the lead. Emotion is stronger than thought. We are social and emotional creatures from start to finish. So staying emotionally connected turns out to be a biological imperative, a critical part of the good life — and a real challenge as we age.
The good news is that you can foster positive emotions by consciously creating positive environments, driving away stress and loneliness, and reaching out to others.
Your reptilian, physical brain and your limbic, emotional brain have a 100 million-year head start on working together. Your thinking brain will never catch them. Embrace that fact, and work hard to nourish each one of them. Connect, commit and care!
If you have a family, hold on to it
Divorce is astonishingly common in the third act. You're looking hard at old Fred and you think, You know, he wasn't that amazing 30 years ago. Now he's leaking testosterone and telling me how to cook. I think I'll just push him out of the boat. Or, if you are old Fred, you look at your spouse and think, My God, she's an old woman. And you marry young Susie Q … and live in real misery for a while.
Do what you must. But think about this: The third act can be absolutely terrific. There are going to be some hard thumps, too. Maybe a touch of death at the end. And that may be easier if you're with someone who knows you pretty well. Do what you must, but hanging on to family should be your default.
Find like-minded folks and move in
If you live in a satisfying community, deepen your ties. Nuzzle your way in, like a puppy into the scrum. It'll keep you warm. If you don't have a satisfying one, move.
Do not scorn "retirement communities." Some of them are fabulous. In whatever community, give of yourself to make it warmer, closer. It's like making love: Done right, you get back just what you give.
Get some damn job
It can be argued that we are all sled dogs and are happier when we pull a little. Even a crappy job is a limbic stew. Jump in.
Get over yourself
If you were Mr. or Ms. Wonderful before, good for you. Now, though, you want to work only part time, and you can't get the CEO job anyhow. That's OK. You no longer have to prove anything. Now it's a matter of being involved, being of use. Using your gifts.
Use different gifts
Finding and using gifts you've been nurturing along the side may be the very definition of happiness. So write that book. Make furniture. Be a ski bum. But default to things that put you in touch with others.
Get a fine dog
Any loving mutt will do. The love you give will come back to you doubled, almost guaranteed. That is better than some marriages. Not mine, you know, but some.
Last, make new friends
In the third act, people leave. Many of them die, if you can imagine. Others move to Colorado or Florida. Whatever. Tip: Have a conscious program of making new friends. It can make a huge difference, later especially. Dogs or new pals, remember the basic rule: We're mammals. Snuggle up.
Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge are the authors of the Younger Next Year series of best-selling books and seminars that have changed millions of lives by sharing the secrets to living longer, stronger, and healthier.
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