Want to Live Long and Happy? Do These Four Hard Things

The Importance of Doing

Doing Mastery
Learn to program a computer!

The importance of doing can hardly be overstated. It sharpens the mind and works the body. It opens us to new ideas. It works muscles in new ways. It often brings us together with other people in meaningful ways. So do crosswords. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. But doing is only part of the equation. The missing part that tips the cart in your favor is doing something unfamiliar or hard or doing something to the level of mastery. These are things that we tend to avoid as we age.

Mastery Neural Network
Your brain on strings.

As an example, take crosswords. It’s easy to find puzzles that can be completed in ten minutes without mistakes. They’re enjoyable and help maintain a level of mental acuity. But they don’t improve your ability or your mental state. To improve my thinking, I need to form new neural connections. These are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. It’s kind of like string-art with each nail a node. The more strings you have the more nails are connected.  (This is why babies crawl before they walk. Crawling builds a scaffold of connections between brain and body that finally allows the child to move their legs and balance themselves with control.) How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard to us.

Hard Things

I’ll stick with crosswords but you can insert your hobby or activity here. I maintain the level of ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kinds of puzzles over and over. It’s the same if you can do five push-ups: you can maintain that ability by doing five push-ups a day. I consider myself a Monday/Tuesday New York Times puzzler. The easy stuff. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better – and by better I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones – then I need to do puzzles that make me wince. That help me see clues and answers from different perspectives. That make me think hard about who won Best Actress in 1976 (Louise Fetcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.

New Things

Language Mastery
Learn something new and hard.

Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity.  What is something you’ve always wanted to try but never have? Learning a language? Making wine? Bonsai? A few years ago, I was going to sign-up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but I thought that this was so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.

Physical Things

Wayne Dyer said that when he was a practicing therapist and people would come into his office complaining of depression he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument is that our mental and physical states are intertwined and that it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. I run a lot and read testimonials in every running magazine from people who run to ‘clear their head’ or to reorient thoughts. It sounds silly but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. Probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.


Become a master at whatever you do.

You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – heightens your experience and by definition improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but they whys. Why does it work this way? Why use this joint rather than another joint? If you cook, learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.

What To Do?

Not sure what to do? Not a problem. Do anything. Michael Michalko addressed this at the site Think Jar Collective in his A Lesson In Creative Thinking From Vincent Van Gogh:

  1. Do something. Just start. Do. In the words of Van Gogh, “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile.”
  2. Commit even if you don’t know where you are going. It’s the doing that’s important. Goals will emerge from the doing.
  3. Do your own work. Explore from your own experience. Maybe no one else will put these three flowers in a vase but so what?
  4. Eschew perfection. Do.

Not Sure What To Do? Ten Things To Stir You

There’s a starter list. When you’re done with that, come back for more!

What things interest you? What have you always wanted to do? What will you start doing today to put one foot on the ground toward better health and happiness?


You think you’re old? Ha! She hired a track coach at 77. BR – What Makes Olga Run?

Olga began competing in track and field at 77. By the time of her death at 95, she had won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? Nothing that any doctor or researcher could determine. Her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly, she was unique. Somehow all those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only good advice that is easy to follow for longevity and happy living. An interesting and provoking read.

Olga Run
At 77 she hired a sprinting coach. Then went on to throw the shot put. What is your excuse, again?

Copyright Dennis Mitton

So far, longevity has eluded the Mitton men. My Grandfather, and then my Father, died at a young 67. No four-score-and-seven for them. And 67 is a hop and a skip from where I sit. Both died from cancer. The best guess about my Grandfather’s death is granite dust. He was a stone cutter as a young man and turned stone pillars for government buildings all over Washington State. He didn’t smoke and had no history of cancer so granite dust was the cause that made the most sense to his doctors. The cause of my Dad’s disease was more confusing. He smoked but had no problems with his lungs. His mom died at 92 and lived the life of Annie Oakley until the Saturday morning she died. Twice a week she drove her golden boat – a 1967 Ford Galaxie four-door – from Milton to Tacoma for organ lessons. Wise drivers pulled over as she went by. Only the top of her head peeked from above the steering wheel and she took up two of the four lanes along the road. Trouble was no one could be sure which two she would take. And she didn’t much care. There were organs to be played!

Olga’s Mystery – Why Is She so Healthy?

We are far from figuring out how to stop aging though we are learning much. Exercise is essential. A good diet necessary. Good friends and healthy relationships help. The right genetics are contributors but not as much as we once thought. But longevity is only half the calculation. We want to live well. We want to be engaged in life. To keep learning. I want to race my Grand Daughter in her first 5k. And beat her. I want to watch my girl’s guitar recital. I want to wipe the tear from my wife’s eye when the twins move to Paris to live out their dreams – one to be a great artist and the other to design clothes for pets.

One person who lived long and well was Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field at 77, about thirty years after most people have died inside. By the time of her death at 95, she won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? Nothing says the author of What Makes Olga Run? Her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly, she was unique. Somehow all those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole.

Olga’s Secret? There is no secret.

In What Makes Olga Run?, Bruce Grierson jumps head first into the whats, whys, and hows, of Olga. He attempts to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. Readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – and in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

Nine Rules

Olga Longevity

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

Grierson’s Nine Rules that anyone can follow:

  1. Keep moving
  2. Create routines
  3. Take opportunists
  4. Be honorable and trustworthy
  5. Believe in something
  6. Lighten up
  7. Build on small wins
  8. Do what is fun
  9. Start now.

My Three Take-Aways for Longevity

Forget charcoal milkshakes and cryotherapy. Quit spending hundreds a month on supplements. So far, I’ve yet to find any real, science-based evidence that the following three guidelines are wrong:

  1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy friends a family.
  2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
  3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

The book is not meant to be a textbook. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that could have been written more accurately. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

An uplifting and provoking read.