Shall We Dance: Five Resolutions

December 31, 2006

Amy Brunvand

A graceful and funny list for some serious self-improvement.

Despite the drawbacks, getting older is really a good thing. Still,  every New Year’s Eve, the temptation to attack the side effects of aging by making guilt-ridden resolutions to eat lettuce for lunch and spend hours on the StairMaster recurs.

The problem is, prudent behavior produces only a temporary glow of righteous self-congratulation, but resisting temptation can cause lasting regret. A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Repenting Hyperopia: An Analysis of Self-Control Regret,” defines hyperopia as “excessive farsightedness and over-control” resulting in a nagging sense that one has missed out on all the pleasures of life. The researchers found that in the short term, people do indeed feel virtuous for eating low-cal fruit instead of chocolate cake; they feel self-righteous for studying during spring break and consider it responsible to work overtime instead of vacationing on the beach. But the conviction that being good was worth the sacrifice doesn’t last. Five years later when the same people look back on their choices, nearly all of them think it would have been a better choice to have had more fun.

This research has implications for how to make New Year’s resolutions that will actually improve your health and sanity. Clearly, the perfect New Year’s resolution should be a reminder to take pleasure in things that are actually good for you.

Resolution: I won’t stress out about things.

Scientists at Reed College found that both African dance and hatha yoga are more effective at reducing emotional stress than taking a college level biology class. One must wonder whether these people ever heard of test anxiety. Nonetheless, the research offers a useful insight. Even though vigorous dancing increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and yoga decreased it, both activities were effective at reducing stress. Apparently, you can take your choice and relax either by speeding up or by slowing down. Music and movement have such a powerful effect on mood that for some people dancing is even an alternative to psychopharmaceuticals as Robert Rand tells us in “Dancing Away an Anxious Mind” (University of Wisconsin Press). The book is a memoir about how zydeco music and Cajun dancing helped Rand keep panic disorder from ruining his life. 
Resolution: I will enjoy quiet mornings with a cup of coffee and the New York Times crossword puzzle.

In the typical American diet, coffee provides a larger dose of healthy antioxidants than any other food, while people who who frequently do crossword puzzles are less susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s disease. Isn’t science wonderful? A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that other activities to keep your mind sharp are reading, writing for pleasure, playing musical instruments and dancing. Interestingly, dancing was the only physical activity in the study that had any mental effect. Bicycling, swimming, walking or taking an exercise class helped people stay physically fit, but didn’t affect the risk of developing dementia. Another study found that people who do develop Alzheimer’s disease often retain their abilities in social dance, a fact which strikes me as both utterly tragic and oddly comforting.

Resolution: I will grow old gracefully.

For young people, grace is merely decorative, but for very old people avoiding falls can be a matter of life and death. Research shows that people who dance have better balance and a steadier gait, and since I intend to become the sort of old lady who puts whiskey in my tea that makes it imperative to practice staying upright. Sociologists say that dancing is also a way to keep the door to one’s own youth ajar. The clothing styles, musical knowledge and manners that go along with a dance scene create cultural capital (i.e., hipness) that eventually settles into a kind of anti-style, helping to cement a generational identity and engender a smug feeling of superiority to young whippersnappers.

Resolution: But not too gracefully.

When women enter middle age they complain that people seem to treat them differently—as if they are invisible or incompetent, but dancing is a way to cultivate exactly the kind of shamelessness the Red Hat Society aspires to by donning purple dresses and garish hats for public outings. Mary Jo Salter captures the spirit of unembarrassed middle age perfectly in her poem “A Morris Dance” which describes a parade of maypole dancers who turn out to be elderly:

Short-winded troubadours and pages
milkmaids with osteoporosis—
what really makes me so morose is
how they can’t admit their ages.

By the end of the poem the middle-aged observer hasn’t worked up the nerve to actually dance, but she is secretly longing to at least be allowed to play the drums.

Resolution: Who cares what other people think? I will dance whenever I feel like it.

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah.