Home All The Happy-Well: Positive Psychology Tips for Living Well and Longer

The Happy-Well: Positive Psychology Tips for Living Well and Longer

written by Sherri Fisher 5 July 2007

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

We are bombarded by science news every day that tells us what to eat, how to exercise, and what risk factors should worry us.  Should we eat chocolate?  Should we avoid coffee?  Drink only green tea? Strength train four days a week?  Stick to yoga? Avoid running if we live in a city for fear of inhaling exhaust fumes? Take cholesterol controlling drugs? Eat only organic foods?  The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “maybe.” 
According to Lyubomirsky, et al, while half of the variance in happiness in a population may be the result of a genetic setpoint and 10% probably comes from life circumstances, 40% is likely the result of choices. The point? Make good choices now that improve your well-being. It’s not such a leap to say that well-being improves your health. But Positive Psychology can make 1 + 1 = 3. That’s a win-win-win: more well-being, better health, and…a longer life. 

How can 1 + 1 = 3? Most research involving human subjects takes place over a relatively short time.  Weeks or months, not years, is typical.  The conclusions that we can reach are helpful, but we don’t always get the “big” picture. 

aging wellIn George Vaillant, MD’s wonderful book, Aging Well, he reveals a long-term approach for looking at the good life. Based on the Study of Adult Development at Harvard University, which followed three separate cohorts of over 800 participants selected as teenagers (only one cohort was Harvard educated) and followed for their entire lives, the book gives new insight to the big picture of well-being across the lifespan.
The first thing that you should know is that aging well is NOT predicted by:

  • Your gene pool
  • Your cholesterol level
  • Your stress level
  • Your parents’ social class, marriage success, IQ, etc.
  • Your childhood temperament
  • Your degree of positive emotion and social ease

Does this mean you should dash out for a quick pint of Chunky Monkey chased by a Raspberry Mocha Frappuccino?  Should you give up blaming your childhood for your miserable job? Should you donate your copy of Emotional Intelligence to the local book swap? Maybe.
How about trying the bigger view instead?
While many studies can point to the power of our genes, the lingering effects of upbringing on our adjustment, and the importance of having a strong emotional IQ, here are the six things that did predict aging well.

  • Never smoking or stopping young
  • Adaptive coping (turning lemons into lemonade)
  • No alcohol abuse
  • A stable marriage
  • 12+ years of education
  • Not being overweight/getting some regular exercise

Why do you want these predictive factors? Having these protective factors predicted health and longevity 30 or more years into the future!
Interestingly, education alone predicted healthy aging, even when controlling for IQ, social class, income, and the prestige of one’s job (perceived status). How does education make such a big difference in predicting aging well, and why should we care?

  • Educated people are able to take the long view, and this facilitates better self-care and life-long learning.
  • Educated people recognize the connection between learning, personal behavior and its consequences.

The Study of Adult Development at Harvard University also identified four personal qualities (I have them in bold italics below, using the language of Seligman and Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues) among those the study called the “Happy-Well.”

  1. a future orientation and the ability to anticipate and plan positively (hope and optimism)
  2. the capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness
  3. the ability to see the world through the eyes of another (the capacity to love and be loved)
  4. the desire to do things with and for people (kindness, social intelligence).


So the bottom line for the long view, since none of us is getting any younger, despite botox: 

  • Your choices matter.
  • Your character matters.
  • Your behavior matters.
  • Your education matters.

Positive Psychology seeks more people for the ranks of the happy-well at every age. Here’s to your flourishing!


Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.


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Senia 11 July 2007 - 2:48 am


That’s neat how you combined Vaillant’s four personal qualities of people with Seligman and Peterson’s VIA strengths.

Sherri, which of George Vaillant’s coping mechanisms do you most believe in as key to a good life?

And if you think about exercise, would you put that under “your choices matter” or “you behavior matters”?

Thanks much!

Sherri Fisher 11 July 2007 - 4:11 pm

Hi, Senia–

Vaillant speaks of “mature” and “adaptive” coping mechanisms. I don’t think that a choice is the same as a behavior. We can make good choices, but if we do not back them up with efficacious behavior repeated over time, the choice may not bear fruit. Your exercise question fits in here, so I’d say “behavior matters.” William James’ attention, habit, and will come to mind.

The other “protective” elements are not coping mechanisms per se, but life-long behaviors. As we age, being connected has increasingly valuable effects. Of the others,

• Never smoking or stopping young
• Adaptive coping (turning lemons into lemonade)
• No alcohol abuse
• A stable marriage
• 12+ years of education
• Not being overweight/getting some regular exercise
…I think that some clearly benefit everyone (healthy behaviors), another builds self-efficacy and resilience (adaptive coping), one develops Chris Peterson’s “other-people-matter” (stable marriage), and another promotes personal growth (education). Since I am not a philosopher, I do not like questions about who gets thrown out of the boat, so I’d like to place my vote for “synergistic” interventions and protective elements.

🙂 Sherri

Senia 12 July 2007 - 8:06 am


I wasn’t sure of my own thoughts when I asked you, and I think I’d have to agree with you about exercise – it’s a positive behavior as opposed to choice. I hesitate because it is also so much a daily choice in a sense. (Digression: But perhaps the healthier way to look at exercise is as a ritual – like brushing your teeth, like having a cup of tea before bed – and not as a daily “should I or shouldn’t I?)

Sherri, what I meant by which of the defenses – and I should have said this more clearly – is which of the following that George writes about do you think are especially valuable:
* altruism
* sublimation
* suppression
* humor
* anticipation

I was especially interested in sublimation since before reading “Aging Well,” I had not imagined that something like coping with an immediate bad event by replacing it with other activities and distractions could be a very healthy attitude. But, you don’t have to choose a favorite of these mechanisms either! Just wanted your thoughts.


Sherri Fisher 12 July 2007 - 5:46 pm

Hi, Senia–

Here are my (gut) thoughts about these particular mechanisms.

* altruism–this is great if say, love, kindness and generosity are important character strengths for a person, but if not, practicing altruism might feel phony.

* sublimation–I love this one, too, since it has soooo many possibilities. According to http://www.dictionary.com, in psychology this means “to divert the energy of a sexual or other biological impulse from its immediate goal to one of a more acceptable social, moral, or aesthetic nature or use.” This seems connected to self-regulation and gives one an opportunity to use their powers for good. Aristotle and William James would like it, too.

* suppression–I’d rather see sublimation (it is more positively directed) than this, since suppression (and its cousin repression) can prevent unwanted behavior, but are not necessarily a positive redirection.

* humor–Here is a mish-mash of aphorisms: laughter is the best medicine, as long as they are laughing with you, not at you. And then there is Bert, or Mary Poppins fame: “I love to laugh!” And…it is a transcendent strength. Think about how much of a relief it is to make a catastrophizing list and realize how unlikely it is…and laugh!

* anticipation–A question for you: Are forward-thinkers likely to be self-regulated goal-setters?

So the answer to your question(s) is that mechanisms are likely synergistic. I love synergy:-)


Senia 15 July 2007 - 12:21 am

Superb and superfun answer!
Thanks, Sherri!


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