Happy-Go-Lucky Types Die Younger
Cheer up. Stop worrying. Don’t work so hard. That may be some of the worst advice you could give someone who intends to live a long life, a new study suggests.
“It’s surprising just how often common assumptions – by both scientists and the media – are wrong,” said psychologist Howard S. Friedman of the University of California, who led the 20-year study. He and co-researchers published the findings in a book entitled The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street Press, March 2011).“Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one’s risk of dying decades later,” Friedman said.
The team analyzed data gathered by the late psychologist Louis Terman of Stanford University in California and subsequent researchers on more than 1,500 bright children who were about 10 years old when they were first studied in 1921. The Longevity Project, as the study became known, followed the children through their lives, collecting information that included family histories and relationships, teacher and parent ratings of personality, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service and more.
“We came to a new understanding about happiness and health,” said psychologist Leslie R. Martin, a study collaborator who is now at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. “One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest.”
The cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years, Friedman noted. While an optimistic approach can be helpful in a crisis, “We found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that ‘everything will be just fine’ can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health go together because they have common roots.”
Other surprising findings:
- Marriage may be good for men’s health, but has little if any effect on women’s lifespans.
- Being divorced is much less harmful to women’s health. Women who divorced and did not remarry lived nearly as long as those who were steadily married.
- Study subjects who were the most involved and committed to their jobs did the best. Continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades.
- Starting formal schooling too early – being in first grade before age 6 – is a risk factor for earlier mortality. Having sufficient playtime and being able to relate to classmates is very important for children.
- Playing with pets is not associated with longer life. Pets may sometimes improve well-being, but they are not a substitute for friends.
- Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and are able to reestablish a sense of security about the world are usually the ones who return to a healthy pathway.
- People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being, but it doesn’t help them live longer. The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others. The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become – healthy or unhealthy.
It’s never too late to choose a healthier path, Friedman and Martin said. The key is not to stop worrying, they added, but to stop worrying about the minutiae.
“Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways,” Friedman said. “When we recognize the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximize the healthy patterns.”
“Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a great strategy,” Martin advised. “You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to longer life.”