Push Yourself to Achieve: An Emerging Secret to a Sharp Mind


When we think of achieving more in our lives, we often think of burning the midnight oil, skipping out on sleep, working through the weekends, and generally pushing our limits. This image is strongly at odds with the low stress lifestyle – chock full of yoga, green smoothies, farmers markets, and meditation – that we often think of when we picture healthy living.

But what if I told you that there’s promising research demonstrating that the stress associated with pushing ourselves is beneficial to our health, especially as we age?

In a recent article New York Times article, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the forthcoming book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, writes:

Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that [critical brain regions] increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment.

Long-term health often requires us to be uncomfortable in the short term. Less cake now for a healthy body later. Pushing ourselves now for a sharper mind into our later years. Goals often operate this way: short term discomfort for long term comfort.

It’s important to note that not all kinds of stress are beneficial in this way. A common way to divide stress is by eustress, moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer, and distress, extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain.

If you’re in a toxic work environment, that’s distress. But if you’re pushing yourself to learn a new skill, and feel stressed out as a result, that’s eustress. When it comes to healthy aging, you’re looking to add eustress into your life.

Ambitious Living = Healthy Living

Perhaps it’s time we start thinking of healthy living as compatible with ambitious living? Examples are easy to find:

  • Optimizing your sleeping habits helps you perform better at work. (This idea that has gained mainstream attention in the last decade.)
  • Eating healthier meals avoids the dreaded food coma that keeps you glued to the couch for hours after dinner.
  • And as we just learned, pushing yourself past your comfort zone, physically and mentally, can keep your brain sharp and healthy as you age.

It’s possible some caveats will emerge regarding how different ways we push ourselves affect our brain health, but for now, the best research available tells us that a healthy brain requires us to strive, set goals, push ourselves to achieve them, and repeat.

Keep on pushing.

Image credit romankphoto