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‘It’s Not How Long You Live — but How You Live It!’

How to grow happier with each decade

Older woman hula hooping in a garden

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It’s an attitude — and a consciousness

Legendary actress Jane Fonda turned 80 this year, and she's never seemed more vibrant. What’s her secret? According to her, she’s “a believer in intentional living.”

So what is she talking about? Intentional living is being more aware of choices, conscious of the day-to-day. Growing older, after all, is not a marathon, where you win just by crossing the finish line. To be intentional means you realize it's not just the quantity of life that matters, but also the quality.

How can you turn this philosophy into a new approach to aging? We talked to experts from minimalists to Harvard researchers to everyday people to find out.

1. Organize Goals by ‘Must Do,’ ‘Should Do’ or ‘Could Do’

 “You can't do everything that's good for you at once,” says Richard Kowal, a chiropractor and nutritionist in New York. So how do you keep from not giving up before you’ve even started?

Kowal suggests breaking down your goals — for exercise, diet, sleep and anything else — into manageable categories of things that must be done (a health imperative), should be done (important but not urgent) and could be done (if you're so inclined).

“The idea is not to be perfect all at once, but to find goals that seems reasonable and just begin with that,” Kowal says. For example, want to eat more greens but have a weakness for pizza? Have them slather it with spinach. “Now you’re moving in the right direction,” he adds.

2. Dump the Junk

Living a long life often means you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. But how much of it do you actually need? Amy McGinnis Hogan, a psychotherapist and minimalist guidance counselor, helps people downsize to “surround themselves with only the items that are necessary to their current lives.”

It can be hard to let go. Hogan reminds clients that “it’s not about where we’ve been, but rather what we are doing right now.” Are your possessions supporting your present life, or are they mementos of time gone by? Hogan sees that using the minimalist approach helps clients release fear by “forcing them to recognize what they truly need versus what they think they need.” And it can make you happier in the moment.

3. Get a Job!

Living to a ripe old age isn’t about ticking a checklist — “Made it to 88. Check!” What are you sticking around for? Studies show people with a purpose live longer than those riding out the clock.

Living to a ripe old age isn’t about ticking a checklist—“Made it to 88, check!” What are you sticking around for?

Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, has studied the connection between longevity and purpose. She says a purpose can be anything that gets you excited, such as “volunteering, spending time with grandchildren, gardening and learning new things such as a language.”

4. Nix the ‘Senior Moment’ BS

We're too quick to blame our age for common mistakes, says Sarah Jane Barber, a psychologist at Georgia State University, who has studied routine forgetfulness mislabeled as “senior moments.”

Rather than expecting that advanced age automatically means disadvantage, Barber recommends “reminding yourself that stereotypes are not self-fulfilling prophecies.” There's no reason to be overly cautious or risk-averse when relying on your memory, Barber says. “Try not to worry about avoiding failures and instead focus on performing your best.”

5. Hang Out With the Cool Kids

When Peggy Fleming goes to the gym, she’s not the 19-year-old girl who won a gold medal in figure skating at the 1968 Winter Olympics. She’s a 70-year-old woman who just wants to feel comfortable in her own skin.

What keeps her coming back? Her fellow gym devotees, especially those her age or older, pushing themselves to get stronger. "I see them in the gym out of the corner of my eye," Fleming says. "And I’m, like, ‘If they can do that, why can’t I?’ ”

6. Be Content With Mediocrity

Elaine Soloway, the author of Bad Grandma and Other Chapters in a Life Lived Out Loud, decided after her 80th birthday that she wanted to learn some new skills. So she’s taking beginner classes in swimming, piano and Spanish. She’s not proficient at any of the above yet, but she doesn't care. She loves exploring uncharted territory.

“It feels miraculous that I can plunk out ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ on the piano,” she says. “And now I can write my daily journal in Spanish, with un diccionario a mi lado [a dictionary by my side].”

Why put effort into something she’ll never master? “I’m content with mediocrity,” Soloway says with a shrug. She's proof that at any stage in life, but especially the latter half, we should be focused on the journey more than the destination.

Eric Spitznagel is a writer and the author of seven books, including his latest,
Old Records Never Die.