Today kicks off my 40-day countdown celebration to turning 40 years old. Yes, you read that correctly; I am indeed celebrating this momentous time in my life with something special every day leading up to my birthday. I refuse to spend the last weeks of my 30s mourning my so-called youth, especially when the awe and wonder I feel toward life only grows with each passing day.
Sure, it would be easy to let myself get sidetracked and dragged down by any of the losses, regrets and fears typical of moving into yet another decade of life: I’m not where I want to be in my career. I don’t have any kids of my own. I have more debt than I’d care admit to anyone out loud. I haven’t yet published (or completed) a novel. I could go on, of course, but listing my ‘failures-to-do’ is too grim and depressing a way to spend my final days of 39. And frankly, to do so is too predictable and cliché than I ever care to be. Instead, I want embrace the forty years of living that I’ve earned in both delightful and arduous ways. I wish to deliberately and wholeheartedly celebrate what I have accomplished and help spark excitement, gratitude and hope into this new period of life before me.
Because let’s be real; 40 is just a number. My age is not dictated by the 14,610 days I’ve spent revolving around the sun on this planet called Earth. Instead, my age is determined by mindset, which shapes my lifestyle, my habits and, most importantly, my attitude–what I think, feel and believe about myself and the world around me. And while some aspects of my mindset are as fixed now as they were when I was 10 (what I want to be when I grow up, for example), a great deal of my perspective is quite fluid and constantly evolving.
Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer wrote about “mind-set shifting” in her book Mindfulness, first published in 1990. In it, she discussed how the “mind-less” acceptance of age-related classifications and associations and repetition of routine and automatic physical and mental behaviors and habits negatively shape memory, perspective and even physical health. Langer’s research convinced her that people can be manipulated and led astray when they ascribe to limiting labels and living unconscious lives.
According to a 2014 article, entitled “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?,” Langer found that perceived signs of memory loss and brain deterioration in her particular studies of older patients living in nursing homes were actually signs of indifference, in many cases. Giving patients incentives to actively engage in life, such as caring for a live houseplant and making choices about their daily schedules, increased the likelihood that they would still be alive a year-and-a-half later. Additionally, encouraging them to reminisce about and embody their youth in vivid detail–from discussing then-newsworthy events, interacting with popular culture of the times, and wearing old clothing of their past–led to improvements in memory, manual dexterity, posture, supple movement and even eyesight.
In a similar vein, for the next five and half weeks, my almost-40 year old self will be spending a lot of time reminiscing and playing with my inner child, getting in touch with the 10-year-old who still resides within me. I will be indulging my inner child with some of her favorite pastimes, daydreaming about her deepest desires and committing daily to taking action on her behalf. I’ll also be doing some of the things the adolescent me most dared to do, but what the 20-something or 30-something me was too afraid to do.
Langer’s led her to believe that people of any age–and at any stage of health–can be psychologically primed to shift their thinking and behavior. Langer is quoted in The New York Times Magazine as saying, if people can “learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them,” they can then go onto “fulfill their potential and improve their health.” This gives me great hope and relief that I can make up for “wasted” time–time spent feeling stuck.
You see, I’ve spent almost all of adulthood living with chronic illness, and I lost many years to thinking I was in battle with my body. “When you’re saying ‘fighting,’ you’re already acknowledging the adversary is very powerful,” Langer says. ” ‘Chronic’ is understood as ‘uncontrollable’ — and that’s not something anyone can know.” Shifting my mindset about my body and its innate capacity to heal was crucial to improving the quality of my life. It helped remind me that my thoughts and feelings toward my body were just as vital to my sense of wellbeing as the sensations I was noting in my body. Further, I was not a person defined by my chronic health conditions. Me, myself, and I have lived with health challenges, but I am so much more than those perceived limitations. Thus I made the commitment to myself no no longer allow those constricted beliefs, nor the fear of the unknown, to hold me back anymore.
Today, I am probably the strongest, healthiest and most at peace with whom, what and where I am in life I’ve been since I was 21. Practicing yoga daily brings balance, flexibility and strength to my soul, body and mind and soul. A daily meditation practice helps me to be more awake and alert in the moment, to be more conscious of the beauty of life, and to fully experience and express the gratitude I have for self, others and the world around me. Writing about my life and my experiences of it helps to keep my memories fresh, to appreciate what I have endured and enjoyed, and to share what I’ve learned with others.
Being more mindful, from Langer’s perspective, means becoming truly present, aware and observant of your environment, of the people in your life, and of the subtle variations in your bodily sensations from moment to moment. When we are mindfully making new distinctions on an ongoing basis, instead of relying on staid habits and limiting classifications, we know we are truly living in the moment. This presence of mind gives us the agency to take charge of and change our lives, no matter what age our birth certificate says or what diagnosis our doctors write in our health records.
This is exciting stuff! It means that, at just 40, I can continue to learn and grow, as I have plenty of time and opportunities ahead to fulfill my deepest desires and goals. Thus, the countdown to 40 really is a celebration of a more mindful me. It inspires me to dedicate time each day to honoring and discovering anew the things that bring me joy, give me purpose, and fulfill my body, mind and soul. as I have plenty of time and opportunities ahead to fulfill my deepest desires and goalsThis includes little things–like taking a daily stroll in nature and meditating, practicing yoga and other forms of movement, and writing in my journal every morning–and bigger things–like like working on my novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), getting my second tattoo, and taking myself on an artist’s date to New York City. There’s so much to see, do and experience that I can’t help but have excitement for the days ahead. You can follow my journey of my 40-Day Countdown to 40 on my Mind-Body Shift page on Facebook or Instagram.