At this time of year, we naturally think back over the past twelve months and look ahead towards the future. Looking back at times gone by (auld lang syne) can be a good thing, especially if we focus on the stuff we've accomplished and the adventures we've had with friends or family. The most modern research confirms the wisdom of the ages that reflecting on our accomplishments and giving thanks for our good fortune is healthy. But what about looking forward?
At this time of year, many of us also make new year's resolutions: Lose weight. Sleep enough hours. Hit the gym. Cut out the fast food. Quit smoking. Drink less. Those who are already in pretty good shape might make even more stringent resolutions: Lower their body mass (BMI) to 22. Sleep eight hours and 15 minutes each night. Count the miles jogged. Worry about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils (fatty acids) in their diets. Drink 1.5 glasses of red wine each evening.
These resolutions are a bad idea. For most people, they simply don't produce the desired effects. After losing 5 pounds they're off their diets and gaining 6 or 7 pounds. They hit the gym for 8 weeks but are tired by the time March comes around. The pizza, and the parties, and the hot dogs and the six-packs creep back in. And for those who were already in pretty good shape, the new resolutions add worrying, time, and expense, for minimal additional benefit. Some can't fall asleep because they're worrying about how much they should sleep, and others are trading away quality time that they need right now for other valuable endeavors.
For the past 20 years, my research team has been studying the predictors, patterns, and pathways of long-term health and long life. We call it The Longevity Project and we have been analyzing over 1,500 Americans who lived throughout the 20th century. We ask: who lives long, healthy lives, and why? The findings continually surprise us. The healthiest individuals didn't have Internet lists of health advice. Rather, they developed committed and hard-working patterns in their lives--lives which involved achievements and close relationships. They were persistent, responsible, and successful. They were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves. Their health came naturally as part of their active, achieving, and dependable lives.
It's not that over-eating, smoking, inactivity, insufficient sleep, substance abuse, and poor diets are not relevant to health. They certainly are important. But we all already know that! The important question is how to increase the chances of healthier patterns, maintain them over the long term, and do so in a not-too-burdensome, rewarding way. It's not by making new year's resolutions!
What can be done? What does our research on The Longevity Project tell us will work? A good clue comes from yes, the song Auld Lang Syne. The concluding verse of the commonly sung version suggests reaching out: "there's a hand my trusty friend, and give us a hand of thine." Indeed many people celebrating the new year will form a circle and grasp hands with their friends. Our scientific research suggests that this can be an excellent first step, if you're at the right celebration. One of the best ways to get yourself on a healthy pathway--one of healthy patterns-- is to associate with other healthy, active, involved individuals.
So instead of making new year's resolutions, look around and see who you are spending time with. A lesson of The Longevity Project--one of the secrets of longevity--is to choose jobs, join social groups, and select hobbies that will naturally lead you to a whole host of healthier patterns and activities.
What about the auld lang syne advice to take the right good-will draught (drink), a little extra cheer for the new year? Well, its relations to health are more complicated and will need another blog.