There are tens of thousands of 100-year-olds —centenarians— in the United States and Canada, and a recent survey interviewed about 100 of them. What is life's secret? In addition to grooving to music from the '30s and '40s and loving Betty White, the centenarians named communication with friends, family, and community as key to a healthy life. Are they right?
The idea behind such a survey is that these 100 centenarians possess 10,000 person-years of wisdom. But if you think about it, there is only one way to know for sure what leads to health and happiness across the years, namely, tracking people as they grow and age. Many studies ask thriving older adults about their secrets, but such research is deeply flawed. The proper comparison groups (of people who did NOT thrive into a happy, healthy life) are long dead, and I don’t employ séances in my research. Plus, we really want to know what the healthy, happy thrivers were doing decades earlier, not whether they are sit-com fans and eat cherries, or rock (in chairs) with their friends today.
Other studies of well-being seek the secrets of the fountain of youth by doing focused experiments. For example, they may ask some individuals to write thank you notes to teachers or mentors, and then see if that makes you (the writer) happy. Such research can yield good insights into short-term processes that may be relevant to well-being, but who knows what will happen as time passes. Lots of diets can help you lose ten pounds in six months, but most people gain those pounds back and add a few more.
There are now two studies that have followed individuals intensively for many, many years. It is amazing how much the conclusions agree. The first is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, headed by Dr. George Vaillant, which followed about 250 men since they were in college at Harvard in the 1930s. This study found that men who coped with life’s challenges in a mature manner and maintained deep social relationships fared best. Good quality relationships with siblings, wives, and friends made a huge difference, just as the centenarians thought.
The second study is my own long-term research called the Longevity Project, in which we have been studying 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children around the year 1921. They were followed for their whole lives, not only men but 672 women as well. We ask: “Who lives long, healthy, and happy lives, and why?”
We did indeed confirm that good social relationships are a major contributor on the road to health and fulfillment, although we discovered many twists and turns as well. For example, a good marriage was very important for men, but women could also thrive through close ties to siblings, friends, or their children.
Sounds simple, but it is not. Knowing this secret to a long happy life leads to a bunch of new questions involving HOW and WHY some people gain and maintain these important social links. Advice to “get married” or “make friends” is useless or worse! I will return to these matters in future blogs.
Living and thriving for many decades means navigating a long and winding road, but friends and family and community are now scientifically documented to make a significant difference. When challenges arise, the people in your real-life social networks can have a huge impact, for better or worse, in more ways than you might first think. They’re much more important than broccoli.
So, it turns out that the centenarians were right after all. At least on this point, they recognized the truth. They were correct about social ties and correct about Betty White (and I will have to go back and listen to some more '30s and '40s music). Healthy individuals with the right social ties sometimes stumble and take various detours as they re-establish psychosocial homeostasis, but still they lead you back to the long winding road to health and happiness.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project was recently published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Copyright © 2012 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved. Picture via Creative Commons from Oast House Archive.