We are all being made much more aware of how we have to exercise our brains to keep them in shape for the long term. Many people do puzzles like crosswords and sudoku, but I have a suggestion for another means of brain building that will make your life better as well as the lives of others.
As a therapist, I am constantly using my brain to create ways to make people’s lives less emotionally taxing and easier. I put a lot of thought into it. This doesn’t mean that more right-brain activities like playing music get ignored, but in terms of giving my brain a workout, there is nothing better than real-life problem solving, especially when it’s for other people.
When it’s your own stuff, you’re so emotionally involved, it’s hard to get any perspective. And perspective is what you can give to someone else. You don’t have to be a therapist to do this. Listening to someone else’s problems frees your brain to think of things you wouldn’t be able to come up with for yourself if you were facing something similar.
You also get the benefit of putting your experience to use, which strengthens your imagination and thinking ability—and is great mental exercise. And yes, it does help to make you better when it comes to your own problem solving, because getting perspective comes with practice. Helping someone figure out their life is a much more rewarding place to put your energy than anywhere else I could imagine.
I know gamers and gamblers will feel differently, as will “Jeopardy!” champions Ken Jennings and Amy Schneider. Even my mother would disagree, because she’d probably feel that most people aren’t worth the effort. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel that those who need assistance aren’t worth their time, which is why it’s so important to do more to help others.
Did you catch the amazing rappers at the Super Bowl halftime show? It was, as these things are, quite a production. And a big monument to paying it forward, because all of the mega-stars on that stage came from nothing. They all were involved not only in creating a new art form but also in making the lives of others better, each in their own way. Because of where they came from, they understand the value of a hand up versus a handout. I know this because I have been fortunate to work with some of them.
Once you have gotten to a certain place in life, that place where you are wondering what to do next, and you have some choices, you may want to try giving back. Engaging with and spending time with others, and helping out where you can, is a gift to yourself as well as them. I promise that it will serve you and your brain function better than whiling away the hours on your computer.
Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a psychotherapist in Westlake Village, Calif., is the author of “The Happy Couple: How to Make Happiness a Habit One Little Loving Thing at a Time.” Follow his daily insights on Twitter at @BartonGoldsmith, or email him at [email protected]