Ben Franklin, long before he was a $100 bill, gave advice through the sayings in his Poor Richard's Almanack. One of the most famous is, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” With his electric personality and bifocal mind, Franklin’s insights, leadership, and discoveries shaped America for generations to follow. Was he correct about some of the causes of health and wealth?
You have probably heard about studies relating your personality to your wealth. Financial magazines and money adviser services nowadays are packed with brief personality quizzes in their articles, to help you see if you are a risk taker, whether you are a forward thinker, and how you will respond when your investments rise or fall. Not surprising to us psychologists, people do differ systematically in their psychological inclinations and responses.
You have also probably heard about studies relating your personality to your health. In fact, I have written quite a few of them myself. There is no doubt that some people are on pathways to better or worse health. We lay out some of the best evidence in our book on The Longevity Project, which has studied over 1500 individuals since they were children in the 1920s. Certain personalities stay happier and live longer.
But now, there are studies in the news relating your health to your wealth, in ways that go well beyond the established ties between socio-economic status and health. We know that wealthier people are healthier for variety of reasons, but a lot of the new research focuses on individual decision-making. That is, behavioral economists may examine the individual characteristics that make you more likely to contribute to a retirement savings plan, take only prudent loans, and make rational decisions about future payoffs. It turns out that many of these individual characteristics and styles also predict who will wear seat belts, follow doctors’ prescriptions, and avoid health risks. Health and wealth are related, in ways beyond the obvious. Such findings are no longer surprising, but what surprises me are the reasons offered for why the wise are healthy and wealthy.
The focus of explanation when behavioral economists discuss these matters is on how the individual thinks about money and health, and individual styles in decision-making. That is, the focus is on thinking. For example researchers may consider whether people are future oriented, and whether they are rational enough to make decisions by dividing a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con.
Our own research on health, thriving, and longevity, however, suggests that although this "decision-making" piece is part of the picture, it mostly misses the mark. The Longevity Project, to the contrary, reveals the pathways or trajectories to health, wealth and wisdom. People do process information and make individual decisions, but we are also heavily influenced by our friends, families, coworkers, and cultures. And we have been shaped by our parents and our upbringings, and by the situations we have encountered, and the situations that we choose to encounter. These pathways can be best understood when a long-term perspective is taken. Patterns emerge over the years.
Fortunately, the personality trajectories and the social relations that are so important to good health and wealth can gradually be altered. The qualities and lifestyles cultivated by individuals on thriving, long-life paths include an active pursuit of goals, a deep satisfaction with life, and a strong sense of accomplishment. These in turn often arise from a significant social network, an active lifestyle, involvement in your community, working hard in your career (despite "stress"!), and nurturing a healthy marriage or close friendships.
It doesn't much matter if you volunteer in a library, or a fire department, or a philosophical society, or a university, or a print shop, as long as you become part of something worthwhile.
Is “early to bed” part of this pattern? The evidence thus far suggests that Ben Franklin was right on this one as well.
If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.
Copyright © 2014 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.
Photo by Bureau of Engraving and Printing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/USA_100_Dollar_Bill_S...