The key to living longer

Life is good.

When you reflect on the years you’ve lived, you’re content. Sure, there have been times when everything seemed lower than a worm’s belly but, overall, you’ve been blessed by friends, family, and happiness.

Life is good. So good, in fact, that you’d kinda like to stick around for more of it. But is it too late to live long and prosper? In the new book “The Longevity Project” by Howard S. Friedman, PhD and Leslie R. Martin, Phd, you’ll see how your past influences the future you’ve got left.

In the fall of 1921, Stanford University psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman embarked on a research project that was destined to outlive him. With the help of his colleagues and that of his subjects’ parents, teachers, and – later – their spouses, Terman hoped to study 1,500 gifted schoolchildren, long-term, in an effort to understand why some people live longer than others.

In 1990, when Friedman and Martin were professor and grad student, respectively, they stumbled upon Terman’s research and realized it was exactly what they needed for their own study on longevity.

Terman began his project when the children were young and by the time Friedman and Martin reconstructed his findings to fit modern statistics, most of the “children” were dead. But the thousands of bits of information they left was astonishing.

To live a long life, must you go early to bed, early to rise, eat your veggies and exercise? In a way, say the authors. The single best indication of longevity was conscientiousness. Conscientious people tend to take better care of themselves.

Hanging out with friends might be fun, but it doesn’t guarantee a long life; in fact, social children tended to party more, which lead to poor health. Worrying is sometimes good, but catastrophizers, generally speaking, had a high rate of suicide. Parental divorce had more of an effect on longevity than did one’s own divorce. Hard work doesn’t just seem to make life longer. Being feminine (for either sex) was indicative of longevity and marriage is good – if you’re a man, and as long as you don’t become a widower.

And that silly grin you’ve got?

Just stop it. Happiness has nothing to do with long life. Take disposition, for example. Cheerful and optimistic children are actually less likely to live long lives, they found.”The most cheerful, optimistic kids grew up to take more risks,” explains Martin. “By virtue of expecting good things to happen and feeling like nothing bad ever would, they predisposed themselves to be heavier drinkers, they tended to be smokers, and their hobbies were riskier.”

So, she concludes, “some degree of worrying actually is good.” And, in fact, adds Friedman, “the prudent, persistent, planful people — both in childhood … and then in young adulthood we measured that — that was the strongest individual difference, or personality predictor, of long life.”

And it’s not just about risk aversion. The study found that conscientious people developed better social relationships and accomplished more at work. Think all that responsibility sounds boring? Not so, says Martin. “Because of those qualities, they tended to get nice opportunities in life, and so they went on to live some of the most exciting and interesting lives of anyone in the study.”

Often, with responsibility comes stress, something we’re typically advised to avoid. But some stress is not a bad thing, says Martin. When study participants who had stressful jobs “found meaning in those jobs and they were committed to them, that stress really didn’t hurt them. They thrived in spite of — or perhaps with the aid of — it.”

Friedman and Martin also found that the conventional wisdom on fitness isn’t quite right. If we try too hard to push ourselves into exercise regimens, it can backfire. Physical activity is important, they found, but it’s more about doing what you love than adhering to a certain fitness program.

And for adults who have fallen into sedentary lifestyles, it’s not too late. In middle age, “if you can pick up some activity you like — it doesn’t have to be going to the gym every morning — that really has a big impact on the rest of your life,” says Friedman.

“We’re really talking here about the difference between people who become sick and die in their 50s and 60s,” he says, “versus those who thrive into their 70s, 80s and 90s.”

Think you’ve already blown your chance for near-immortality? Not so: grab this fascinating book before you get discouraged. As it turns out, you may be able to overcome your past by changing your future.

Authors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin wipe aside those old wives’ tales we’ve all heard, replacing them with useful, intriguing results from an almost-hundred-year-old study. Not only is that a fun look back at the social mores of times past (check out the boy-girl stereotypes), it also helps make sense of the health advice-blast we seem to receive nearly daily.

Tweak your regimen here, stop doing things there, adjust your thinking, read this book, and learn how to live to a ripe old age. For any future Senior Citizen wanna-be, The Longevity Project is pretty good.