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Do you Hold the Keys to Health and Happiness?

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Living a long healthy life might be more than just luck. And as it turns out, it may not involve a positive attitude, preventing stress or living a laid-back lifestyle, according to a groundbreaking study of personality as a predictor of longevity.

Researchers Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin of the University of California, Riverside, say as a result an 80-year “Longevity Project”, much of what we have come to understand as predictors of living to a ripe old age are just flat wrong.

Friedman and Martin examined, refined and supplemented data gathered by the late Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman and subsequent researchers on more than 1,500 bright children who were about 10-years-old when they were first studied in 1921.

"Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one's risk of dying decades later," Friedman concluded.

The study followed the children through their lives, collecting information that included family histories and relationships, teacher and parent ratings of personality, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service and numerous other details.

"When we started, we were frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity," Friedman recalled. "It was clear that some people were more prone to disease, including chronic disease such as cancer, some people took longer to recover, or died sooner, while others of the same age were able to thrive.”

The researchers considered all sorts of explanations: anxiety, lack of exercise, nerve-racking careers, risk-taking, lack of religion, unsociability, disintegrating social groups, pessimism, poor access to medical care, and type A behavior patterns.

The study was the first to follow participants throughout their lives. Over the years, tens of thousands official documents were tracked and analyzed, which Martin said opened a new understanding about happiness and health.

"One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking.”

Part of the explanation, they said, lies in health behaviors. Cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years, Friedman noted.

While an optimistic approach can be helpful in a crisis, "we found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that 'everything will be just fine' can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health have common roots."

Key findings include:

  • Marriage may be good for men's health, but doesn’t really matter for women. Steadily married men – those who remained in long-term marriages – were likely to live to age 70 and beyond; fewer than one-third of divorced men and slightly more never-married men were likely to live to 70, but they did not live as long as married men.
  • Being divorced is much less harmful to women’s health. Women who divorced and did not remarry lived nearly as long as those who were steadily married.
  • People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being, but it doesn't help them live longer. The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others. The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become – healthy or unhealthy.
  • “Don't work too hard, don't stress,” doesn't work as advice for good health and long life. Terman subjects who were the most involved and committed to their jobs did best. Continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back peers.
  • “Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways,” Friedman said. "When we recognize the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximize the healthy patterns."
  • Play is important. Starting formal schooling too early (beginning first grade before age 6) is a risk factor for earlier mortality. Having sufficient playtime and being able to relate to classmates is very important for children.
  • “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a great strategy,” Martin advised. “You can't change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to longer life.”

Source: "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study". Hudson Street Press, March 2011.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, she pens Nonsmoking Nation, a blog following global tobacco news and events.

Add a Comment2 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Willalee, I think it is safe to say you feel "EmpowHered"! You are an inspiration . Keep moving forward and embracing your newly found sense of self. One step at a time and soon you are running! Thanks for reading.

April 7, 2011 - 9:18am

Reading this article really made alot of sense to me because I have been making steps every day to try to improve my life and I find it is helping me feel better.I thought 3 months ago I had to start some where so it was one day at a time for me and now I feel I am mentally and physcially fit but what I am really surprised about is, I am starting to like myself. I am accepting the fact that I am worth the effort.I know I am a work in progress. I know I hold the keys to my happiness and health.I feel more aware then ever.

April 6, 2011 - 9:20am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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