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.
In 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.”
- a future orientation and the ability to anticipate and plan positively (hope and optimism)
- the capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness
- the ability to see the world through the eyes of another (the capacity to love and be loved)
- 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.