It’s the million-dollar question (of course not when you’re depressed): what do we need to do to live longer? Two professors decided to bring together their 20 years of work on a landmark eight decade study. Howard S. Friedman is Distinguished Professor at the University of California in Riverside. Leslie R. Martin is Professor of Psychology at La Sierra University, and Research Psychologist at UC Riverside. Together they wrote The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. Their scientific research on health and longevity has been published in over 150 influential and often-cited scientific articles in leading books and scientific journals.
1. I know that it’s hard to pinpoint one predictor of longevity. But I’m going to ask that anyway. Given all the research you present in this book, can you name the top three factors that contribute most?
Dr. Friedman: We looked very carefully at who thrived and survived from childhood through old age. So naturally, people ask, “What is the single most important tip to live longer and happier?” Is it telling jokes and laughing a lot? Maybe it is that hour in the gym every morning at 6 am? Or, is it vowing to lose that extra 10 pounds? Could the essential trick be keeping a positive outlook and whistling while you work? No.
The single most important bit of advice we can offer tip-seekers and list-makers is: Throw Away Your Lists!
We live in a self-help society full of lists and resolutions: Lose weight. Sleep enough hours. Hit the gym. Cut out the fast food. Quit smoking. Drink less. Etc. You know the list. So why isn’t everyone healthy?
Turns out these endless lists of resolutions are a bad idea. For most people, they simply don’t produce the desired effects. After losing 4 pounds they’re off their diets and gaining 7 or 8 pounds. They hit the gym for a month but then tire out and return to the TV couch. Parties, hot dogs and six-packs creep back in. Some can’t fall asleep because they’re worrying about how much they should sleep!
The healthiest individuals in The Longevity Project didn’t have lists of health advice. Rather, they lived meaningful, committed lives. They worked hard. They achieved much for their families. They nurtured close relationships. They were persistent, responsible, and successful. They were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.
What can be done? First, there are self-quizzes and case histories in The Longevity Project that the you can use to understand your own long-term patterns and trajectories relevant to health. These focus on your personality and your social interactions. Then, the best way to get yourself on a healthy pathway — one of healthy long-term patterns — is to associate with other healthy, active, involved individuals, especially those relevant to your desired healthy lifestyle. A key lesson of The Longevity Project is to join social groups and select hobbies that will lead you to a whole host of consequential and naturally healthy activities. It is heartening to know that embracing the lessons of The Longevity Project and persistently striving for a socially richer and more productive life will significantly increase the odds of a long and happy life as well.
2. I found it interesting that it’s not a person’s career that matters so much as their attitude about their career and how they channel knowledge. So, if you are in a less than ideal job, how to turn it around to make it work for you?
Dr. Friedman: In terms of tips based on The Longevity Project, I think one of the best (which we do use ourselves) is to welcome new work assignments. That is, rather than thinking “Oh no, more work, I’m stressed”, instead think “Oh good; increased opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile!” And then — here’s the key — start on that task right away. This is not “positive thinking.” Rather, this is a behavioral approach to the work-day. You do it knowing that will bring even more work! We present many examples showing that this is how the long-lived participants lived. However if your coworkers are making you miserable, and you do not have the adequate resources to do your job properly, then it is time to look for a new job when possible.
3. Also interesting to me was the discussion of marriage. It’s not necessarily that a person is married, but the quality of relationships in his/her life. What are some characteristics of a healthy marriage that lead to longevity?
Dr. Friedman: We are still looking in more detail at the characteristics of a healthy marriage. We know that divorced men fared poorly in terms of their future health and longevity. We know that the overall marital satisfaction of the man is more important to the future health of both the men and the women than is the marital happiness of the woman. And we know that married women with a great sex life lived longer (but we don’t know why). Beyond that, we know that lots of social contact with other people, especially interacting with lots of other people and helping other people, was very healthy over the long term.
4. Personalities. Which ones fare better?
Dr. Friedman: In 1922, the participant’s parents and the participant’s teacher rated the child on dozens of trait dimensions. Then, in 1940 in young adulthood, the participants were asked a series of personality-relevant questions. We worked for months to construct and validate a series of new, reliable personality scales. Unexpectedly, in both childhood and adulthood, conscientiousness and dependability turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life! This is a strong effect, comparable to the effects of systolic blood pressure or cholesterol on longevity. Prudence, persistence and planning were amazingly healthy. The children who were prudent, conscientious, truthful, and free from egotism lived the longest. The adults who were “thrifty and careful about making loans,” “dependable,” and “persistent in the accomplishment of your ends?” likewise thrived. There are personality self-quizzes the reader can take and score in The Longevity Project.