Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: The joyful neural pathway

Here I was minding my own business, when I was unceremoniously dumped into my 70s. The realization that I was on the downhill side of life opened my mind to an onslaught of important messages.

Knowing that aging brings ongoing losses — friends, family, health, mobility and resources — can generate a feeling of despair. I wondered how I might reframe those losses to avoid that negative feeling.

An article I read on joyfulness intrigued me. In a study of 100 people who described themselves as happy, some had major health problems, others had grave financial problems. The author said that inherently some of us see life more joyfully than others. Yet, she contended that we are not limited to the degree of joyfulness assigned to us at birth.

Each time we react joyfully, we imprint a neural pathway in our brains.

We strengthen that neural pathway with each cheerful response. As the pathway strengthens, we will automatically respond more positively. When I told my husband, Steve, that I wanted to increase joy in my life, he pointed out that lately I had been responding more negatively. He offered two examples:

“Remember last night when you complained that the casserole was cold and I offered to reheat it? You preferred to sit there and complain.”

Example two: Born during the Depression, I took on a budgeting mentality at an early age. Proud owner of a new shredder, I missed some staples the first time I used it and stripped the gears. Even though Steve had replaced the shredder, I hadn’t been able to let go of my unhappiness at wasting money.

The message I heard was that I needed an immediate retrofit on my happiness pathway. Knowing that my future is shorter than my past adds an element of urgency — a good motivator for change. Another motivator is the awareness that positive thinking and a happy outlook will increase my ability to communicate and connect with people.

Making connections

It’s easy to say that we don’t have time to make connections because of our hectic lives. My experience is that I can weave connecting moments into my day, connections that only take minutes.

One day an older gentleman was struggling to get a large box into his trunk. A woman got out of her car, rushed over and offered to help.

He snapped, “No, I’m fine.” She recoiled and hurried to her car. I approached her open window and said, “I really appreciate you offering to help that man. You must feel sad that he didn’t respond well.” Her face lit up and she breathed a “thank you.” That connection brightened the moment for both of us.

My photographer friend, Dennis Young, operates in connecting mode all the time. To him, every encounter presents such an opportunity. I know that he is an excellent photographer because he genuinely appreciates people and makes them aware of that. Seeing how happy this makes him and how it positively impacts others, I realized that he was reinforcing my need to ramp up my connecting activities.

Today I had lab work done. When I left, the technicians and I felt like old friends. A few minutes of “Dennis behavior” had created joy.

Pat on the shoulder

Sometimes, though, just as when the older man curtly rejected help, I feel sad when a friendly overture is not acknowledged. My brother, Joe, offered me a solution. He suggested I pat myself on the shoulder and say, “Good girl, Judy.” It works; my brain doesn’t care who does the patting; and I have added another groove in my positive, joyful neural pathway.

Once that act of self-validation occurs, I can remind myself that I have no way of knowing what might be happening in the other person’s life. Then I feel empathy rather than irritation — the groove gets deeper.

Recently my friend Donna had a “Juicy Crone” party to acknowledge my 70th birthday. This joyful event left me with a sense of awareness.

My friends and I, all 60-plus, are not dried-up old crones. We are seasoned, experienced women who choose to spend our remaining years loving, connecting, being joyful and positive and enriching the lives of those with whom we interact.

No matter your age, you can choose to listen to the message that more joyful, positive thinking is there for the effort. Strengthening that neural pathway is easier and cheaper than a gym membership to improve muscle tone, and it can provide immediate results. South County resident Judythe Guarnera is a freelance writer, mediator and senior peer counselor. Reach her at follow.yourheart@sbcglobal.net