Each year, from mid November through December, it is a challenge not to become swept up in the Holidaze – a shopping and overdoing frenzy that takes an enormous toll on bank accounts, physical and cognitive health, and emotional well-being. In the past few years, I’ve tried many strategies for slowing down and restoring simplicity, stillness, and silence to the weeks before and after the winter solstice, a time that humankind has long regarded as sacred.
And this year I’ve become increasingly aware that age can be an ally in freeing ourselves from the frenzy and rediscovering the blessings of winter. The holidays were originally holy days, honoring the return of the light during the darkest part of the year. Ancient celebrations among the Hopi and Celts and in Egypt, Japan, and elsewhere varied, but almost always included fire (a symbol of hope) and boughs of greenery, representing the eternal circle of creation. In the next few blogs, I want to explore how many of the developmental trends of later life can assist us in reclaiming winter as a time of hope, renewal, and joy, beginning with Coming Home to Ourselves. Later pieces will address the blessings of Slowness, Simplicity, Celebration, and Silence.
Coming Home to Ourselves
Later life affords the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the authentic self and to become more attentive and faithful to its promptings. Decreasing demands of family and career allow greater freedom to discover our preferences and follow our own rhythms. Lessening social pressure to look and act a certain way brings a sense of liberation and a daring to live by our own lights, regardless of others’ opinions.
As we age, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. And after decades of living by others’ standards, belonging to ourselves, at last, is a precious gift. In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott conveys the joy of coming home to herself as she’s aged. “Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life—it has given me me.”
Growing self acceptance and deepening trust in what we know in our bones enable us to make choices that are more congenial to our nature, our circumstances, and our values. As psychologist Abraham Maslow observed, becoming more authentic strengthens our ability to resist cultural prescriptions that don’t suit us. Age strengthens the Self so that we can say Yes to what we value and No to what we don’t.
Shifting Toward Intrinsic Values
In the winter of life, materialism tends to lose its appeal, and intrinsically satisfying values like generosity and kindness become more compelling. Giving ourselves to what matters most and knowing that we are contributing in a meaningful way bring joy and fulfillment. This shift toward more intrinsic values may be one of the reasons that contentment tends to increase in later life.
A number of studies have revealed that material wealth can actually interfere with happiness, and that the most contented people are motivated by values like love and compassion. In The How of Happiness psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky summarizes her own and others’ findings. “Not only does materialism not bring happiness, it’s been shown to be a strong predictor of unhappiness. . . . [It often distracts] people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present moment, and contributing to their communities.” Lyubomirsky‘s remarks seem especially important to remember at this time of year, when shopping and overdoing can so easily take us over, leaving little time or energy for enjoying loved ones and caring for those in need.
Growing awareness of our mortality in later life heightens the need to devote the time and energy we have left to what genuinely matters. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen points out that older people become more selective about the activities and relationships in which they invest themselves, focusing on what matters most and letting go of what doesn’t. Thus, with age, we grow less willing to participate in what others are doing if it doesn’t feel good or ring true for us. If it does not suit us, we can say No to the frenzy and find more satisfying ways to spend the holidays.
The gifts of selectivity, intrinsic valuing, and authenticity each affect late-life development in a number of ways, but together they can also serve as allies in helping us say No to the Holidaze – a necessary first step in recovering the intrinsic blessings of the winter. For more on the history and soulful celebration of light in the midst of darkness, I highly recommend John Matthews’ beautiful and inspiring and book, The Winter Solstice.