Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Secrets of Longevity

Why We Get Such Dumb Advice About Love, Money and Health

How to recognize the smart advice and snub the dregs

Posted Apr 20, 2015

As readers of advice blogs, we all know that we get some spectacularly dumb advice. Just last week I saw recommendations about how to achieve financial security: First, keep working (do not leave your job). Gee, I never thought of that. Second, prepare for the possibility that you may encounter unexpected expenses. Another pearl of wisdom. Does not everyone know that bad unexpected stuff can happen and it can be expensive? Third, watch your expenses. Doesn’t everyone who knows how to read a blog also know that spending money means you will have less saved and available?

In the love and happiness domain, the advice many range from counsel that you should find a suitable partner to exhortation towards being kind and loving (and courteous, clean, considerate and courageous). And don’t forget to brush your teeth. Does not every teenager already know all this? So what kind of advice is this?

For health advice, don’t we get nauseous with ad nauseam recommendations to eat vegetables, exercise, get enough sleep, buckle your seat belt, wash your hands, and stay thin? Who does not know this? Every school child hears this over and over again.

The real problem of course is that we know these things but we do not do these things. So the hidden assumption is that by reminding us of all these recommendations, we will be more likely to do them. To some extent this does happen. But a major finding from decades of psychological research is that education—including bland lists of advice—can go only so far. Sure, it is important to know and remember that we should eat our vegetables and get a good night’s sleep, but that is not very helpful when our friends are inviting us out to a late-night party. Or when the ice cream sundae is sitting there in front of us.

But we know that some people mostly do the right things while other individuals are usually messing up. What distinguishes them? It turns out that healthy pathways are key. Once you are on a good pathway, more and more good things tend to follow. The trick then becomes getting and staying on such a healthy path. What is the secret?

For many years, in the Longevity Project, I and my colleagues and students have been studying over 1500 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 of the surprising insights that emerges is that those who thrived and survived—achieving success in work, relationships and health—were those who found the right pathways for their own personalities. For example, some were highly conscientious (prudent, planful, persistent) and headed down life good pathways by investing in core relationships. Others were ambitious and competitive but found their flow through immersion in their work. Still others headed down the road less traveled, being spirited, self-sufficient, and often doing the unusual, but they had spirited friends of good character to help them right themselves when things got wobbly. Perhaps my favorites were those individuals who encountered many difficulties along the way but thrived in the face of adversity by helping others and seeking out the best in everyone they met.

Advice to “seek out the best in everyone you meet” is better advice than “prepare for the possibility that you may encounter unexpected expenses.” And advice to find and hang out with friends of good character is a lot more powerful and effective than advice to be loving and kind. If we have friends of good character, they will help us be loving and kind, and they will help us get back on track when we slip up.

With some practice and consideration along these lines, it becomes easier to recognize the smart advice and snub the dumb advice.

Note: There is also some relevant advice in my previous column on how small differences in your world can change your future at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/secrets-longevity/201504/whats-in-n...

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 © 2015 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.

Photo Public Domain By TheCulinaryGeek from Chicago, USA (Ice Cream Sundae   [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons  commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIce_Cream_Sundae_(5076899064).jpg