A healthy mind in a healthy body

Maintaining mental / emotional health

Staying mentally sharp and emotionally upbeat

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Of all the mysteries in the universe, the biggest one could well be: what’s going on inside your own head?

As we enter and move through our older years, there are two ways that it is particularly helpful to expand and explore this question. First, is our brain power up to snuff, and in particular, are we starting to lose any of it? Second, with all our years of life experience, what have we learned about our own personalities that will help us make the most of the remaining years, and not spend them pursuing activities and behaviors that really don’t work well for us?

It is arguable how much we can really change our mental capabilities and our personalities. Self-help books (some of which are referenced below) want to make you think that you can become much smarter than you are, that you can actually improve your memory as you age, and that you can change your personality. And there is probably a good measure of truth to this, if you have the willingness to change, and the perseverance to apply consistent efforts in that direction.

But there are limits to that, as there are to efforts to improve your physical health. No amount of effort is going to radically change us. And we can perhaps resist and delay, but cannot ultimately defeat, the effects of aging on our brains, or the impact of certain illnesses (strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.) if we become subject to them.

Still, what we can do, especially while we retain most of our mental vigor, is to understand our mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses, and apply our accumulated wisdom to the task of working on what we can change, and adapting to what we can’t change.

Maintaining Mental / Emotional Health relates to other areas of Health:

Maintaining Mental / Emotional Health relates to other areas besides Health:

Maintaining Mental / Emotional Health Sub-Topics and Resources

How can you tell whether you are losing your mental sharpness, or your memory, or if you are developing emotional problems? You might not be able to get definitive results over the internet, or from a book. But you can probably get an idea whether you are in the normal range (or better), or whether you should consider getting a professional evaluation (along with advice on drugs or other therapeutic interventions that could help).

When it comes to personality characteristics and attitudes, it is much easier to use do-it-yourself tools. There are innumerable schemes out there for categorizing personality types, and for testing attitudes toward this and that. Below, we refer you to some that are among the best.

The purpose is to bring to your attention patterns of behavior, ways of looking at things, personal styles, and attitudes that in the right circumstances are probably helpful to you, and that in the wrong circumstances can be impediments. The goal is not to judge you, but to help you understand when and how to use your personality characteristics at times and in ways that are beneficial – and to learn to downplay them where they might be getting in the way of your own happiness, your relationships with others, or your ability to move forward in your own life.

Some say that the mind is like a muscle, and you have to use it or lose it. The scientific evidence is not entirely clear on whether “exercising your brain” can help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of senility (honestly, you shouldn't count on it). But it does seem clear that by using our minds – by reading, playing games that use our reasoning or memory, choosing active rather than passive forms of leisure, traveling, engaging in serious conversation, and participating in paid or volunteer work – we keep ourselves as sharp as we can be. Doing the smart thing can actually be the most fun, in this case.

Most of these topics are discussed in more detail in other of these Retirement Readiness pages, particular the ones noted in the “See also” section, below.

In recent years, psychology has come to focus not just on identifying and resolving problems, but on emphasizing the positive: happiness, fulfillment, joy, gratitude. Here’s how to get in on it.