All of us except the misanthropes would like to live happily ever after. But how long is the "after" in happily ever after? In this case, we are talking about over 100 years.
In our long-term research called The Longevity Project, we have been studying 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children around the year 1921. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have been evaluating how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: "Who lives long, healthy, and happy lives, and why?" Here is another amazing case from our study:
One of the participants in our research is a 100-year-old physician who has been in the ongoing research study for more than 90 years. I recently visited Dr. Eph Engleman in his office, and we wrote the rest of this blog together, with a focus on social relationships, health, and happiness.
Our lively discussions differed greatly from those in a usual centenarian study that studies a group of non-perishables who have thrived for 100 years. The problem with most such research is that we don't really need to see if centenarians are super-cheery and eat yoghurt. Most centenarians are happy and by definition have stayed healthy. Instead, we need to know what they were doing 40, 60, and 80 years ago that led step-by-step to their current thriving!
Fortunately, this particular centenarian fits the bill of good health and happiness (that emerges from our statistical research) to an extent that is almost scary. Here, we will focus on some of the social predictors of health and happiness.
Dr. E. is still in a loving marriage, a marriage that requires responsibility. He has been happily married for over 70 years, and you do not get that far in marriage by being reckless and self-centered. Indeed, the research clearly found that men thrived and lived longest when in a healthy marriage. In particular, it was the happiness of the husband that especially mattered for the good health of both the husband and the wife.
Women also benefitted from marriage but to a lesser degree, and surprising, they did quite well if they lost their husband through death or divorce. Other research confirms that this is true, especially at older ages. Why is this? Because women generally have other close social ties they can turn to, especially children, sisters (and sisterhoods), and dear friends.
Dr. E. also stays socially active, including lively involvement in a club that he first joined back in 1937! This is precisely the pattern of most of those participants who thrived throughout the years. Especially with a club focused on the arts and on service, joy and health benefits accrue. But I'd have my doubts about a club focused on investments or other narcissistic activities.
But how does one stay socially involved and focused? Here is where the Longevity Project really points to something often overlooked. It is our more formal ties--including meaningful work, sports, and community organizations--that naturally facilitate the other elements of healthy thriving. If you are a master violinist like Eph, keep playing in your chamber group, even at 100. But any social organization involved with bringing out the best in human nature will do.
No doubt many individuals suffer due to bad luck, and we all have our vulnerabilities. There is no point in blaming the victim. But many educated individuals can make their own good or bad luck. It is not an illusion that some people are catastrophes waiting to happen. It is not that they are followed by a dark cloud, but rather that they bring the clouds with them.
Could we have a world filled with happy, healthy 100-year-olds? It is not so farfetched. Good genetic endowment is of course important but not as much as most people imagine. Perhaps a third or less of the variation in longevity is due directly to the genes we are born with. A lot is due to how we proceed, step-by-step through the years, a process that depends on community. A key reason some places (like Okinawa, Japan) have so many centenarians is that they have so many 60- and 70-year-olds socially involved on healthy pathways.
What is the lesson of this almost century-long study for health and happiness in the long haul? What is the how and why of happiness? It is the amazing consequences--yes well-being consequences-- of promoting a world of responsible individuals thriving in loving relationships, in cohesive communities. Although you might say that this is the "wisdom of the ages" being confirmed in a scientific analysis, few people live it. Perhaps it takes a 100-year-old man in a landmark 90-year scientific study to serve as an inspirational reminder of how to live happily ever after.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project was just published in paperback edition (by Plume Publishing).
Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D. is a health psychologist and author of The Longevity Project (with L. Martin), and Ephraim P. Engleman M.D., Clinical Professor of Medicine, is a rheumatologist, and Director of Rosalind Russell Arthritis Center (which accepts charitable donations). Both are at the University of California (Riverside / San Francisco respectively).
For more information and to read the Introduction to The Longevity Project now out in paperback, see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/
The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Copyright © 2012 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved. Picture from Creative Commons.