Flourish or languish - our bodies know the truth

Most of us like to see retirement as a ‘long holiday’, where we’re okay if we have enough money and just keep ourselves busy, doing, well, pretty much anything really. But retirees...

05 Jun 2018

Most of us like to see retirement as a ‘long holiday’, where we’re okay if we have enough money and just keep ourselves busy, doing, well, pretty much anything really. But retirees who don’t get past that point often languish.

What’s Missing?

It can be surprising just how much we miss the structure, socialisation and stimulation which work gave us. Self-worth can also take a dive without the identity we enjoyed in our former career. If we don’t replace those rewards after our ‘retirement honeymoon’ ends, pockets of emptiness slowly creep into our days and pretty soon we languish.

We really need to flourish

We all know that surging feeling: when we engage in things which absorb and inspire us; when we connect with others in rewarding relationships; when we feel open to and curious about the world; and when we work towards tangible goals, brim full of promise. That’s what it means to flourish.

We either flourish or languish

There’s no half-way point; we can’t fool our bodies by just staying busy or thinking positively. We either flourish or languish - they’re as different as ice and water says Professor Barbara Fredrickson. Why? Because our mindset and our biochemistry work in synchrony to ‘flick the switch’ between flourishing and languishing.

Our brains continually register our ever-changing circumstances and in turn, orchestrate the cascade of biochemicals that reshape our body and brain ‘from the inside out’, starting with our cells. Our bodies broadcast everything we feel to our organs, readying us for health or illness.

As we experience the heartfelt emotions of flourishing, such as gratitude, love, joy and hope, we:
  • Produce more oxytocin which engenders trust. Oxytocin lowers cortisol and hence we have less stress-induced increases in heart rate and blood pressure; less inflammation and a higher pain threshold.
  • Our vagus nerve, which connects our brain to our heart, supports and coordinates our experience of connection to others by stimulating eye and facial movement and even allows us to hear people across background noise. The higher the strength of our vagus nerve, the greater our heart’s efficiency and flexibility across a host of physical, mental and social domains. At a sub-conscious level, we can better regulate glucose levels; lower our inflammation; balance our emotions and get on better with our friends. Our friends, in turn, will feel and see the difference – our eyes brighten, we have ‘a spring in our step’.

We can measure how well we’re flourishing

To flourish, our deeply felt positive emotions need to outnumber our negative emotions by three to one, says Fredrickson. Her research found that most of us achieve only a two to one ratio or less. With intention and technique, most of us could create one more positive emotion and flourish. Check if you are flourishing by doing Fredrickson’s quick quiz each day for a few weeks.

Flourishing doesn’t just happen, it has to be created

First and foremost we have to find a way to trigger these deeply felt emotions in our subconscious.  It’s important then to create the events in our life which induce our subconscious to feel these deeply held emotions. This requires us to know our ‘real self’, which can be challenging when we are thrown off balance by retirement and lose the sense of self we had in the thrall of our career. There is a proven path to being real, which is all about self discovery.  

When Joe was retrenched, he retired without being prepared for what followed. Joe felt personally fragmented without his familiar routines and daily stimulation.

How did Joe work towards flourishing?

Joe rose to the challenge of retirement and went in search of what would energise him and give him deep satisfaction and pleasure.
  • Joe ‘tuned into’ what he thought about most often; what he most liked to talk about; the authors he followed; the news items he often commented on.
  • Joe thought carefully about the people he wanted to be with most; the people he found particularly interesting; the people he most relied on; and the people for whom he felt a responsibility to care.
  • Joe became more aware of what it was that he was doing when he felt ‘most alive’. He started to prioritise the things which he’d not given himself time to enjoy.
  • Joe created a open mind to what was around him by dropping his expectations of what ‘should’ happen, in order to see was happening and what might be possible.
  • Joe had a few ‘quick fixes’ up his sleeve to reverse his inevitable negative emotions. For him it was listening to particular music playlists, watching the sunrise and reflecting on inspiring podcasts.

Joe then made a plan to bring his interests and supportive relationships together. He sought friends to share his interests and he created new routines for himself. He explored what was on offer in his local community and beyond, and looked for people who would expand his perspectives.

Joe’s friend Kate was inspired by Joe’s focus, but found it more difficult to achieve this clarity. Kate took the on-line Retirement Compass survey[1] that revealed her hidden strengths and showed her how to engage with the ‘virtuous loop’ of what energised her. These were her personal opportunities for enduring satisfaction. Kate was able to confidently choose the pursuits that were right for her and respect her partner’s very different choices. Kate had a new sense of self-appreciation and of what was ‘real’ for her.

It’s immeasurably rewarding to flourish. Retire and Flourish has proven resources to provide an easier path to flourish.

1 This resource is based on the work of a leading motivational empiricist, peer reviewed and validated across 70 cultures. It’s a resource for life. The survey can be taken on-line  - just contact youcan@retireandflourish for details.

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