Last Sunday night, seven women gathered around my television set as a shapely, but taut, body of a drop-dead gorgeous woman filled the screen.
“How can she wear that thing and look so good?” one exclaimed.
“Black makes you look thinner, but this is ridiculous. She looks half her age, and even acts half her age!” another said.
“She should be a model,” one intoned as a hush fell over the room and the action began in earnest.
Was this a “Sex in the City” party? A gathering to celebrate shows about beauty at any age, such as “She’s Got the Look”? Or possibly a rerun of “The Devil Wears Prada”?
Nope. What transfixed seven middle-aged women, including me, was the finals of the women’s 50 meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Nebraska. The woman whose body, life, and exploits have captivated us and millions of others around the world is the newest icon of women who want to play bigger in life and go after their goals, regardless of age – Dara Torres.
For less than one minute, the women in my goal-setting accountability group, affectionately known as, “More Than a Book Club,” watched and screamed in delight as Torres, a 41-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl, broke the American record in the event and locked in her place on her fifth Olympic team for the second time last week (she won the 100-meter freestyle, as well).
Torres is not only the oldest American woman to make an Olympic swim team, she is one of the most remarkable athletes ever in the history of any sport known to mankind because she not only beat everyone in her age group, she beat everyone in every age group in a sport dominated by youth and strength.
As Torres squinted at the scoreboard to make sure she had finished first, the elite athletes around her, most of them half her age, looked at her and the scoreboard in mixtures of awe and disappointment. “The Mom” had won – again.
As a goal-setting specialist, and primary author of the upcoming book, Creating Your Best Life, (Sterling, January 2009), I am fascinated by what Torres has single-handedly done to whip up hope and happiness among people who long to not only accomplish all types of athletic and professional goals, but who dare to go past the “freakout” point and take risks to get more out of life than they once thought possible.
For days, my phone has rung off the hook about the fact that my clients now have more courage to face their own fears in new ways because of what they saw on television in Torres’ accomplishments. A late-fifties mom of a disabled child signed up for a creative writing class so that she can start her own blog. A therapist bought a book on money management and began to chart her out-of-control spending habits. A policeman’s wife decided to enter a 10K race so that she could get out of the house more regularly to pursue her own fitness goals.
I study and write about the intersection between goal accomplishment and happiness, and I know how potent role models are in instilling hope in others that they can go after their own goals. But Torres has gone beyond the Masters swimming moms with her accomplishments, as far as I can see, and has galvanized women all over the world to dream a little bigger about what their own lives can be.
Let’s examine what Torres has done, and what we can all learn from her around the topic of happiness and creating your own best life right now:
- Torres had “challenging and specific” performance goals, which goal setting theory states is the best type of goal when one is seeking a specific outcome. She not only wanted to make the Olympic team and become the oldest American swimmer to do so, she now wants to win a medal at the Games in Beijing. There is nothing vague about Torres’ ambitions, and that was crucial in identifying the path she’d need to take to get to her destination.
- Torres believed in herself, but knew that it would take a village to get to the Olympics. Although some have criticized the pricey retinue of stretchers, coaches, nutritionists and massage therapists who advise and train her, Torres refused to go it alone, and knew that high achievers surround themselves with other high achievers who elicit the best from them. The newest findings out of Harvard Medical School from Nicholas Christakis and colleagues around social contagion theory demonstrate that people adopt the values of the people closest to them, whether it’s overeating or quitting smoking. Torres surrounded herself with the best people she could find who had the training methods, attitude and positive energy she required for her journey.
- Torres understands the concept of “eustress,” or “good stress.” She challenges her body daily through swimming, weight training and other key exercises, and then is fanatical about getting enough rest and proper nutrition to recover sufficiently so that she can continue to grow. Pursuing any goal is stressful because it requires going outside your comfort zone, but to maximize your potential, you must always retreat back into safe waters after depleting yourself. Too much of one or the other is damaging, and Torres achieved the proper balance.
- Torres was not willing to settle for a small dream, and her competitiveness led her to go after audacious goals and break new ground. A brand-new study about golfers might explain part of the reason why she can do this. Witt and colleagues have found that elite golfers who sink putts regularly say that they see the hole as “huge” in their mind’s eye, while poor putters say that the hole always looks small or “dime-sized.” Is it possible that elite athletes develop this outlook because they see a world of possibilities that are expansive – like big golf holes – while the rest of us only see tiny holes that are almost impossible to make?
- Torres had what Angela Duckworth calls grit. She had shoulder surgery in recent months that might have downed lesser athletes, but she never seems to quit or find excuses to slack off her training. Any study of goal-setters finds that greatness demands at least ten years of “deliberate practice” to become good at something. Torres has been swimming for over three decades, and she has continued to find ways to get faster and stronger into middle age.
What are the takeaways from a Positive Psychology perspective about Torres’ amazing achievements?
First, going after your goals brings you joy. Having a purpose, with clear and measurable feedback along the way, can transform a reactive existence into a meaningful life. When NBC commentator, Tim Russert, died recently, his wife noted that he had had a happy life because he’d gone after all of his dreams and achieved them. Torres will always know that she went after multiple goals that mattered to her and she achieved them against staggering odds.
Relationships matter. There is no goal or situation in life that doesn’t benefit from having positive, strong friendships with people who can guide, celebrate and commiserate with you.
Taking care of your body contributes to happiness. Research from the University of Bonn has shown that vigorous exercise creates “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. Despite the brutality of the thousands of hours of training that Torres has undergone, she says that swimming makes her happy and gives her a better attitude to deal with the challenges of raising a pre-schooler.
Going after your goals with accountability has been found to help address the U-shaped curve of depression that strikes middle-aged women all over the world around the age of 44. Torres had athletic goals, but any type of goal tied to a meaningful value can have the same impact on the woman who wonders, “Is this all there is?”
My suggestion to everyone reading this column is to make Dara Torres your screensaver on your computer right now. Gary Latham, the co-founder of goal setting theory, recently found that people raised more money when they had a picture of a winning athlete superimposed on the fundraising guidelines that were right in front of them, as opposed to people who saw the same guidelines without any image.
So why not superimpose Dara Torres’ euphoric and triumphant smile on something that you see often and then track just how incredible your own life can be?
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.
Ross, P. (2008). The expert mind. Scientific American.
Shantz, A., & Latham, G. P. (2008, April). An exploratory field experiment of the effect of subconscious and conscious goals on employee performance. Paper presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference, San Francisco, CA.
University of Bonn (2008). Runners’ High Demonstrated: Brain Imaging Shows Release Of Endorphins In Brain. Science News.
Witt, J. K., Linkenauger, S. A., Bakdash, J. Z., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Putting to a bigger hole: Golf performance relates to perceived size. Psychon. Bull. Review, 15, 581-585.