5 Times Saying “Yes” Might Change Your Life

By Leslie Goldman |

This one little word can open the door to joy, health, creativity, and much more.

Senior woman sculpting clay

When Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s, her daughter suggested that she start writing down memories from her life. Those stories went on to become legendary best-selling books, including Little House on the Prairie, which was published when Ingalls Wilder was 68.

Colonel Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise when he was 62.

Ernestine Shepherd, a self-described “well-padded school secretary,” didn’t start exercising until her 50s, but she became a competitive bodybuilder at age 71, going on to be named World’s Oldest Performing Female Bodybuilder by Guinness World Records.

What do Ingalls Wilder, Sanders, and Shepherd all have in common? During a period of life that many people stereotype as being boring and routine, they stepped out of their comfort zone and ended up revolutionizing their worlds.

In other words: They said yes to trying something new.

“It’s a myth that older people are more conservative, cautious, or stuck in a rut,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of the Psychology Today blog “Fulfillment at Any Age.”

Whether it’s learning how to quilt, introducing yourself to a new neighbor, trying a new workout routine, or sampling a new-to-you foreign cuisine, opportunities for experimentation in the 65-and-up crowd abound.

That’s encouraging news, Whitbourne says. “It can be very healthy and mind-stretching to try something new.”

Dipping your toes into new activities, conversations, or places challenges your brain at a cellular level, helping to keep your memory sharp and potentially slowing age-related cognitive decline. It can also bring a new level of purpose to your life, says Jennifer Lecher, C.T.R.S., C.P.D., a recreational therapist and life enrichment director at Hidden Springs of McKinney, a senior living community in McKinney, Texas.

Many common retiree activities, such as playing with grandkids or walking with friends, are enjoyable and help fill the day, “but you need to find things you connect with on a deeper level when you’re trying to find true purpose and meaning,” Lecher says. “It’s great to keep busy, but don’t let keeping busy prevent you from discovering what’s truly important to you and what brings you a deeper sense of joy.”

There may be comfort in predictability and a steady routine, but when you say yes to new experiences, you set yourself up for more years of healthy aging, full of excitement, learning, and personal growth. Here’s where to start.

1. Say Yes to Doing Something Creative
Now is the time to try that painting class, sew your first afghan blanket, or take a nature-photography workshop. Older adults are often in a prime position to create art, whether that means drawing, sculpting, singing, or even dancing, says Martha Piscuskas, director of arts education at the Maine Arts Commission.

“I’ve seen people embrace their creative selves with a lot of relish,” she says. “They’re not raising kids anymore; their career is not as critical as it was. It’s liberating to step away from those tracks.”

Whitbourne suggests picking something that plays to your strengths: If you’ve never been able to hold a tune but have always had a knack for writing, follow those leads when choosing your new endeavor. Do some research beforehand, whether that means talking to friends who have taken pottery lessons, watching YouTube videos on how to play the guitar, or visiting your local sewing store.

“Give yourself a lot of support before you go out there and do it,” Whitbourne says. With every new success, you’ll find your self-confidence growing, an “I can do this” feeling that not only feels good but also will motivate you to say yes to more new endeavors. And don’t be afraid to share your art with friends and family. “It’s reinforcing to have other people compliment your work,” Whitbourne says. “When they say, ‘Wow!’, that can be very stimulating.”

Your health may benefit too: In one study supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute of Mental Health, people ages 65 and older who were actively engaged in the arts reported better physical and mental health, including fewer doctor’s visits and less medication usage.

2. Say Yes to Your Community
What, exactly, does that mean? It can be as simple as getting to know your neighbors and supporting local businesses and organizations as much as possible, says Meaghan B Murphy, editor in chief of Woman’s Day magazine and author of Your Fully Charged Life: A Radically Simple Approach to Having Endless Energy and Filling Every Day with Yay.

“Visit with neighbors, engage with your community’s Facebook page, participate in your block party or other neighborhood events,” she says, pointing out that research shows feeling attached to your community and neighbors leads to a sense of safety and well-being. This is especially crucial for seniors, who have an increased risk of feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Opening up to your community can be as simple as saying hello to someone you pass on the sidewalk, smiling and waving rather than walking by with your head down.

“Those little pleasantries go a long way toward establishing a sense of community on your block,” Murphy says. She also highly endorses learning the names of people like your mail carrier and garbage and recycling collector.

“During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I would sit on my front porch, masked up, just waiting to engage with Anthony, my UPS carrier,” Murphy says. “We really got to know each other, and those endless Amazon deliveries really became a source of ‘yay.’ I call it ‘The Cheers Effect’—how good it feels to have people know your name.”

3. Say Yes to Volunteering
Volunteering is one of the most beneficial ways you can say yes to your community. And it’s not just the recipient organization that benefits; people who volunteer may experience perks in the form of a reduced risk of hypertension, less chronic pain, and a longer lifespan.

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Choose a cause close to your heart, whether it’s animals, children, education, or homelessness. Then commit to it by scheduling your weekly volunteer sessions. “Look for a place that asks for a commitment and counts on you to show up,” Murphy says.

Philanthropy doesn’t have to be an organized activity, such as reading to the blind or walking a 5K for cancer. Running an errand for a friend or baking cookies for an under-the-weather neighbor also counts.

“Knowing someone in your community needs you feels like a warm hug for the soul,” Murphy says. “It feels good to do good!”

4. Say Yes to Exercise
When it comes to preventing age-related physical and mental decline, exercise is about as close to a magic bullet as we can get. Moving your body helps prevent everything from heart disease and cancer to depression and sleep troubles.

Never been an exerciser? Not to worry: “It’s never too late to give fitness a try, and you can absolutely still experience the benefits,” says Sara Mednick, Ph.D., professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.

Need proof? Mednick points to a 20-year-long Norwegian study that found people who didn’t begin working out until after middle age reduced their risk of dementia to a similar extent as lifelong exercisers—a 40 to 50 percent reduction in dementia risk.

You don’t need to be the next Ernestine Shepherd to reap the rewards. Start by saying yes to small amounts of physical activity throughout your day, such as going on a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood or doing this energizing yoga flow from the comfort of your living room.

5. Say Yes to Celebrating
We’re not just talking about major holidays, but the silly little ones too—National Pancake Day, April Fools’ Day, National Siblings Day, and so on. “These days are opportunities to recognize and appreciate the simple and fun parts of life,” Murphy says.

Saying yes to National Trivia Day or National Bubble Bath Day will inspire you to partake in enjoyable activities you probably haven’t thought of in years. Those days will feel different, fun, and livelier than usual, and, over time, “when you live life looking for reasons to celebrate, you’ll find a lot of happiness in the process,” Murphy says. And that can help you just say no to some of the stress of everyday life.

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