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Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

What's in a Name? A Lot More Than You Think.

... and how small differences in your world can change your future.

Source: auremar/Shutterstock

When, while a graduate student, I first heard the names of two very prominent scholars of animal behavior, I thought it was a joke. They had published an influential book on evolution and human social behavior, just as interest in the area was taking off. But I thought it must be a practical joke, or perhaps pen names (noms de plume), that the authors were Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox. Really? Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, studying animal behavior? It was true, and it was my first inkling that we way underestimate the influences of subtle or elusive aspects of our environments—like the names we've been given—on what we do and how we feel.

I subsequently have paid attention to the names of researchers very interested in and committed to understanding aspects of animal behavior (and they are good at it). In addition to Tiger and Fox, there is, yes, Brian Hare. And Max Wolf. And Robin Dunbar and Michael Fox. And Loren Buck and Nadia Drake. And still others.

I think there is a pattern emerging here.

Consider this: You probably use either Colgate or Crest toothpaste. But you have probably not done a detailed analysis of rival toothpaste products. So why are these two the choice of millions, generating billions of dollars in sales? Yes, we like them, but why do we like them? In large part, it's because these brands are ubiquitous—advertised everywhere you look, and filling store aisles everywhere you go. The subtle influences of things in the environment, and in the background, have an underappreciated effect on how we live our lives and how we feel.

It has been documented that it is not an accident or coincidence that one of the longtime, most passionate leading advocates in the American Medical Association’s campaign against tobacco is named Dr. Randolph Smoak. But these insights are usually not applied to understanding this important aspect of what makes us happy and healthy.

For many years, in the Longevity Project, I and my colleagues and students have been studying more than 1,500 bright American men and women who were first examined as children by Lewis Terman in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have evaluated how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: Who lives long, healthy, and thriving lives, and why? One surprising insight that emerges is that the little things in our lives can add up to make a big difference. Prudent, persistent, planful individuals seek out environments or create everyday patterns for themselves that contain countless untold, subtle reminders of things that keep them happy and healthy.

Lions and tigers, and Lionel Tigers, are all around us, in other words, although we usually do not notice them. Do you have a friend or partner who writes or calls or texts you with funny stories and feelings of support and words of compassion? Do your friends invite you to hike and bike or to repose with video shows? Is your street filled with burger take-outs and liquor stores, or yoga studios and health food stores? Are you surrounded by parks and trails, or by casinos with no clocks, no windows, and endless chimes and bells? Does your architecture and neighborhood design keep you isolated, or interacting with others?

What are the little things in your room and your life telling you?

The little things add up. Changing your name, or your toothpaste, will not in itself produce happiness or health. But if we spend a year gradually changing lots and lots of little things that we know will help us thrive, many of us can see our jungles grow into Shangri-las, and see our wastelands melt into gardens of Eden.

Cruel April seems a good month to begin.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback by Plume, and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure out your current trajectory.

Copyright © 2015 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.

About the Author
Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

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