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Happy-go-lucky types die younger, study finds

March 11, 2011
Courtesy of UC Riverside
and World Science staff

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.”


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Cheer up. Stop worrying. Don’t work so hard. That may be somewhere close the worst advice you could give someone who intends to live a long life, according to University of California, Riverside researchers. “It’s surprising just how often common assumptions – by both scientists and the media – are wrong,” said Howard S. Friedman, a psychologist who led the 20-year study. He and co-researchers published those 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 numerous other details. “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 of no 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 first step is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying. “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.”