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The Normal Person’s Guide to New Year’s Resolutions: Getting the Most Out of Life

Advice from a 96-year-old grandfather, a professor of mindfulness and more

It shouldn’t be a surprise that living life to the fullest is one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions — it’s what we all want to do (when we’re not simply trying to survive the madness of the current world, that is). But how do you even know you’re getting the most out of it? There’s no roadmap to life, after all — that’s why all sorts of fads and gurus and other bullshit come and go all the time. Still, since everyone’s got an opinion on how to wring every last drop out of existence (often for a price), we made it easy and asked a bunch of experts for you.

Terence Elder, a 96-year-old man (and my grandfather): I don’t know that my wife and I live life to the fullest knowingly. But first of all, don’t take yourself too seriously: It can lead to ulcers. I don’t tend to talk about the past with people — it’s much better to concentrate on the present and the future than the past. I always ask myself, are people really that interested in what I did?

Look for something brighter down the road. We’ve had regrets, disappointments and sadness, but I think our salvation is that we didn’t concentrate on them. We always came back to the big picture and then they didn’t appear so large.

What’s the big picture? It’s a conglomeration of good memories and good things off in the future for anticipation. You kind of mix them all together and say to yourself, “I’m gonna keep myself sound and healthy so that I can enjoy those moments.”

Stay curious. I think everybody should have a hobby or an interest that takes them away from their daily routine. It makes your days more varied and interesting, and to me, that’s very important.

Plan ahead as much as you can. We’ve never been in a financial restriction because we’ve always looked ahead. We turned down a lot of fad activities — like owning a motorhome, water ski boat or vacation home. We saved ourselves a lot of worry and haven’t regretted any of it.

I guess we just couldn’t find the right Joneses to keep up with! And God knows how many thousands are out there.

Ellen Langer, Harvard mindfulness professor: Mindfulness isn’t meditation — you can do it, but it’s just a tool. What you want to do is a very simple process: The act of noticing. When you notice new things, what happens is you come to see you didn’t know it as well as you thought you did, so your attention naturally goes to it. When you’re actively noticing — which is being mindful — neurons are firing. It’s energy beginning; you’re engaged.

It’s not just figuratively enlivening, it’s literally enlivening: Studies show that older people who are mindful live longer. When you’re mindful, you come to see that what you did made sense from your perspective, or else you wouldn’t do it. And as soon as you understand why you did it, you don’t regret having done it, and you don’t need to have a New Year’s resolution to say, “I’m not gonna do it again in the future.”

It doesn’t matter if what you notice is silly, even vulgar. It makes no difference as long as it’s new. It brings your attention to the thing you’re noticing. Everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, so when we think we know, it’s an illusion. We’re being mindless.

How do you make the moment matter? You have to be there. Lots of pop psychology says to “be in the moment,” but that’s an empty instruction, because when you’re not there, you’re not there to know you’re not there. So I’m telling you how to be there!

Steve Adcock, retired from his I.T. job at 35 to become a full-time explorer: For my wife [also retired and an explorer] and myself, getting the most out of life depends entirely on what makes you happy. Most people think they know what makes them happy, but that’s not necessarily true — it’s much more complicated than that. I think the important thing is, don’t think of money as what enables happiness. Look outside of money: Companionship; physical activity like hiking or biking; anything that’s fulfilling, especially in the form of experiences, can completely transform your life.

Ryan Howes, therapist: Get to know yourself. We make the best decisions and communicate the most clearly when we’re clear about who we are. This self-knowledge could come from many places — a journal, an online personality test or a dive into your own psychotherapy. Self-knowledge is power!

Minimize. The growing movement toward simplification and minimizing “stuff” is popular for a reason — people who actively reduce the clutter in their lives say they feel burdens lift and an increase in time to focus on the relationships and experiences that matter. Before forking over your cash for yet another work shirt or tech gadget, spend a little time seeing what you can offload to Goodwill. The good feeling of letting go can become habit forming.

Forgive. Think about the grudges you may be holding, and consider letting them go. When you think about it, a grudge is more harmful to yourself than anyone else, and the mental and physical benefits of forgiveness are well documented. Does this mean you’re forgetting what happened, or that you need to become best friends with the perpetrator? No — just that you’re deciding to let go of your vendettas, for your own good.

Laurie Matzkin, Rabbi: The ancient rabbi Ben Zoma taught, “Eizeh hu ashir? Sameyach b’chelko.” It roughly translates to, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”

In the world of mindfulness, we strive to give attention to this moment, this breath, this field of vision. There’s enough for our senses to experience — whether it’s wiggling our toes and rolling back our shoulder; noticing the sunshine reflecting on the hardwood floor; or truly listening to the laugh (or cry) of a child — that there really isn’t room to imagine the past or future. To me, this is a beautiful way to interpret the word “portion.” Our chelek, our portion, is so rich: When we notice the blessings in our lives, we can observe our portion as vibrant, expansive and even full of grace.

Americans have so much we take for granted: Internet access, smartphones, gas at the pump, home delivery services, organic food, even quality teachers. Yet our materialistic culture leads us to a scarcity mindset. We’re constantly being messaged that we need more: To buy more, do more, be more. But true wealth, from a religious perspective, is a joyful contentment that we have enough — even more than enough. The sunlight on the hardwood floor, the breath given by the Divine for the full extent of our life, the family and friends who love and support us — this is our portion, and our key to happiness.

So you want to live life more fully? Make a daily practice of noticing your portion, the ethereal gifts you have been given. Take a breath and thank your body, and allow joyful contentment to fill your soul.