Here’s an interesting little insight I encountered recently: While exercise, nutrition and stress management are all critically important factors in maintaining a high level of health and well-being over an adult lifetime, the single most important factor may be something few of us have considered: self-revelation.
I stumbled across this information — a finding from George Vaillant’s landmark study of male Harvard alumni in the 40-plus years following their graduation — while reading the grownup personal-development classic, Repacking Your Bags, coauthored by Richard Leider (quoted in “Reinventing Retirement” on page 86) and David Shapiro.
In their book, they explain: “Individuals in Vaillant’s healthy group reported the presence in their lives of at least one ‘nutritious’ person — someone with whom they could consistently share their thoughts and feelings openly.”
It seems that the human need to be seen, listened to, acknowledged and understood is so profound that it can make or break our biology.
Our relationships are, quite literally, lifelines.
Remember the cloaking devices on Star Trek? While activated, they rendered individuals or even whole spaceships invisible, virtually impossible to detect. This made it easy for stealthy, cloaked types (typically Romulans and Klingons, I think) to move about unencumbered. But to actually do anything of significance (move at warp speed, raise force fields, fire on a target, etc.), they generally had to deactivate the cloaking device.
It works much the same way in real life. We can get around pretty easily with our decloaking devices turned on, but we can’t really connect or accomplish much of real significance. How much more satisfying would our lives be if we could comfortably reveal our true selves, actively embrace our authentic hopes and desires, wholeheartedly own the stuff that, right here and now, really makes us tick?
Leider and Shapiro refer to this type of deep, self-revelatory sharing as “unpacking,” and they acknowledge it takes both courage and confidence. It also requires recognizing and accepting what makes you tick. That’s why, before you can comfortably and thoroughly unpack with someone else (whether a friend, spouse or business partner), you need to master the art of unpacking on your own, which ultimately means getting to know yourself in a deep way.
I mention this because, in my own experience, the older we get, the more strongly we feel the impulse to unpack and decloak. And the longer we resist or ignore it, the more we create excuses for why we can’t ever do it, or at least, why we can’t possibly do it now: Our relationships aren’t strong enough; the demands of our work won’t allow it; there’s simply not enough time.
The irony, as Leider and Shapiro point out, is that our relationships, work — and life in general — are typically direct reflections of where we happen to be in this unpacking process. The extent to which we lead lives that seem unmanageable or unsatisfying is often the same extent to which we’ve been unwilling to dig into the luggage we’ve been hauling around for ages — or the extent to which we’ve been unwilling to come clean with others about the most important stuff in our bags.
Sure enough, when I look at the people I know who are aging well, one of the chief things they share in common is the significant amount of unpacking they’ve done over years and decades, and their willingness to continue exploring their internal and external connections for the long haul.
And when I look at the people I know who have passed with grace into the great beyond, they have all gone, regardless of age, with a goodly amount of unpacking and decloaking behind them.
When we planned this “Fit for a Lifetime” issue, it was clear to us that while the emphasis might be on the art of staying healthy and strong as we age, the most essential focus had to be on advice and insight that was relevant through all of life — from childhood through adolescence, adulthood and what I like to call “the wise years.”
We hope you enjoy it.