The Mindful Self-Express

The mind-body experiment.

The Secret to Longevity - It's About Character, Not Just Calisthenics

Results from 80 years of research on personality & health

Older People
Good Relationships Help You Live Longer

What is the secret to the "Fountain of Youth," that magic formula, pill or potion that can provide us with immunity from diseases of aging, energy, and long life? This has been the topic of many a best-selling book or television program, and tons of experts and products offer the youth elixir. Yet few have any substantial research behind their claims. Most research has been done on healthy lifestyles and exercise, leading to some assumptions about aging that are heavily centered on the physical. "Eat your broccoli!" "Get your Vitamin D!" "Keep up your aerobics!" say the experts, and we over-40's get a wave of anxiety, sign up for gym membership or go on diet, with variable success and predictable difficulties in adherence. Exercise and staying active are important, but they seem to be only one piece of a larger social and behavioral pattern, at least according to a new book called The Longevity Project.

The Longevity Project, written by Howard Friedman, Ph.D. & Leslie Martin, Ph.D., is the culmination of a decades-long research project on psychological, social, and behavioral predictors of longevity. The original data were collected by the famous psychologist Lewis Terman, now deceased, from elementary school children living in the Stanford area, nominated by their teachers as "gifted." These individuals were all reasonably intelligent, well-educated, and middle-class, yet there were tremendous differences in how long they lived as well as the quality of their lives.

Friedman and colleagues were able to continue tracking subjects until their deaths, obtaining actual copies of death certificates from authorities. Their hard work and perseverance paid off in the form of a dataset that allowed them to rule out many alternative explanations, and which allows us to have a great deal of confidence in their findings.

The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project - A Book by Howard Friedman & Leslie Martin

Participants were similarly intelligent & educated

It has been well-established that richer people live longer and even smallish difference in income and education make a difference to longevity. We also know access to healthy food, opportunities to exercise, and adequate healthcare are important predictors of disease. and death The Terman participants (or "Terminators") were similar in all of these factors, which means the researchers could tease out the relatively "pure" and clean effects of personality and social connections on longevity.

They didn't just rely on people's own reports

Many health outcome studies only use questionnaires in which people report about their personality, moods, behaviors and health status. This makes the results difficult to interpret because more anxious or depressed people are more likely to say their health is poorer or to remember more negative life events. So, we can't conclude that the negative mood caused the bad health or even that these people really were in worse health in an objective sense. Also, some people may say they are in better health or doing better psychologically than they actually are. And men may be more likely to do this than women, which would bias the results. In this dataset, however, the researchers used death certificates, which are definitely not biased by these types of factors. They also had reports from parents and teachers as well as participants, so they weren't just relying on participants‘ opinions.

They measured people before the events happened

If you want to assess the effects of divorce or bereavement on health, you might at first think this was a relatively simple task. Just go out and find a bunch of divorced people and measure if they have more diseases or symptoms than still-married people. The problem with this strategy is that people who get divorced may differ in many other ways from the still-married. They may be more socially isolated or have more financial stress, and it could be these factors, rather than the divorce itself, that caused the poor health. The dataset used in The Longevity Project did not have this confound because it first measured participants as young kids, before most major life stresses had happened.

The Bottom Line - What are the Psychosocial Predictors of Longevity?

Conscientiousness - Conscientious people lived longer, had better jobs, better marriages, and expressed more satisfaction with what they had achieved in life. This makes sense. Wouldn't you rather hire, marry, or befriend a conscientious person than a slacker?

Strong Social Ties - People who had larger social networks and who did more for other people lived longer. In fact it was more important to do things for other people than to feel loved and cared for oneself. This was an unexpected finding but makes sense in some ways. If you are loved by a few people, these people could move away, lose their capacity to care for you, or die. People who take care of others will be much more likely to make and keep friendships on an ongoing basis throughout life. Perhaps those who maintain large networks and run around helping the neighbors are also more energetic and this accounts, at least in part, for their better health.

100th Birthday Cake
Not Everybody Lives to be 100 But Some Do

Marriage , if you are a man - married men lived longer than single men and men whose wives had died were more likely to die. On the other hand, married women did not necessarily live longer than single women, who were actively involved with friends and family. Also, women who left a bad marriage actually did better following the divorce. On the other hand, divorce did have some negative effect on the kids' health, even when any decreases in family income were factored in. Because women tend to build close, confiding relationships with many people, not just their spouses, they may have more social support and resources to rely on, increasing their resilience. In fact, regardless of actual gender, people with more feminine traits were found to be healthier.

What is particularly interesting about The Longevity Project is that these positive behaviors were tied together in patterns. The authors paint an intriguing picture of conscientious and connected people as resilient copers who are able to withstand stressful events by creating new social ties and work opportunities. These individuals reported great pleasure and satisfaction from their work and families, despite working long hours. So, it turns out we may not need luxury spas, vacations in Hawaii and lives of leisure to be healthy. It's more important to do the best job you can, be part of a community, and find meaning and satisfaction in the life that you have!

Visit the author's website at http://melaniegreenbergphd.com/marin-psychologist/.

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., studies the health effects of expressive writing, cognitive adaptation to trauma, the genesis and treatment of chronic pain, among other coping issues.

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