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Exploring New Rewards

When I quit drinking eight years ago, a friend who had stopped years before advised me to develop an evening ritual that would take the place of sitting down and having a glass of wine after work. Since I was more than a little worried about how I would handle this big change, I did as I was told. Gratefully, it paid off. I would get home, pour myself a Fresca, sit on the couch, and unwind. I missed the wine for a while, but I got over it, and I settled into my new way of relaxing after a long day at work. Still, I was more than a little surprised at the effectiveness of this method.

I thought of this again this week when I was reading Keep it Moving, a new book by longtime dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. Tharp is in her late 70s now and the book is focused on the value of continually setting goals for ourselves in all areas of our lives—particularly as we age. Just a few pages in, I realized that my Fresca plan was successful because it offered me a daily reward, very similar to sitting down and having a glass of wine. Even more interesting was the study Tharp cited about monkeys and the food rewards they received when they pulled a lever. Turns out their dopamine release was highest just before the food—when they anticipated it and knew it was coming. That’s why the Fresca works for me. When I’m having a stressful day, the thing that helps me get through it is knowing I can go home, put on my sweats, sit on the couch and eat popcorn and drink Fresca. It’s the anticipation of that reward that is so powerful.

If I’ve found a way to do something—or to meet a need—then that’s the way I think I need to do it forever.

This also reminds me that one of the things I love about getting older is that I know so much more than I used to about what I need to feel good. And yet, even writing those words, I understand a tricky part of my nature. If something has worked for me—helped me in some way—then that is my answer, my goal, my reward. In other words, it would take a lot to get me to switch out that Fresca. Like those monkeys, I tie that fizzy, tangy grapefruit flavor directly to relaxing on the couch and not having any more obligations. That may not sound like a problem, but it becomes one when I apply that same idea to bigger areas of my life. In other words, if I’ve found a way to do something—or to meet a need—then that’s the way I think I need to do it forever.

This bubbles in my brain when I reflect on why my short-lived retirement time was not particularly satisfying. My life as a retiree lacked the social validation that I get from being out in the world working. Having someone say, “Thanks a lot. You’re doing a great job,” is the Fresca of my professional life. And, because feeling as if I know what I’m doing has always been such a lovely part of working, I’ve grown to believe that work is what I need to feel good and comfortable in my life. Thus, I was happy to return to get back to it and do the thing I can regularly count as a success.

But, it turns out this keeps me from trying new things. What if I could change my reward system? What if I trusted the universe a bit and came to realize that I could get validation in other ways? Because I will retire again at some point (I’m not insane!), I’m asking myself these questions. We are not a lot different than lab animals, I think. We get used to something feeling good—or looking forward to it feeling good—and we don’t want to take the chance that there might be other things that meet these same requirements. Because ... what if they don't?

I’m glad to be thinking about this now, while I’m still working, but I don’t want it to be purely philosophical. In my view, the real life experiment is to see how much we really are capable of—how much we can see and do and feel. Our fear of testing our limits keeps us in some very tiny boxes—at least that’s true for me. I’m ready to test some bigger ones now. I know that for sure.

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