What can studying people from birth to death teach you about living the good life?
One of the most interesting books I read this year was The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. They studied over 1000 people for the duration of their lives — from childhood until old age — giving them regular physical and psychological tests and tracking the results.
What they discovered confirmed some things we all believe about what it takes to live a good, long life — and more interestingly they found out where our common beliefs are wrong.
One of the things that I found most fascinating was the link between what it takes to live a long life and what it takes to have a happy life.
…many (but not all) of the recommendations for happiness are nearly identical to recommendations for maintaining health.
For example, those trying to improve their happiness are advised to do the following things:
• Watch less TV
• Improve social relations— spend time with friends
• Increase levels of physical activity— go for a long walk
• Help others and express gratitude to those who have helped you
• Take on new challenges to remain fresh and in-the-moment
If there was one main takeaway from the study and the book, it was how important relationships are:
…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.
And it wasn’t getting help from others that conferred a long life. It was giving help.
We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest. Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
The good do not die young, as the old saying goes. In fact, they live longer.
…there’s no real evidence that the good die young. In fact, although there are always some exceptions (which are therefore notable), generally speaking, it’s the good ones who can actually help shape their fate; the bad die early, and the good do great.
Want to make your life better? This study shows it’s your relationships that can determine whether or not you succeed.
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.
Another more recent study confirmed this.
Via Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:
In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness. Others changed after they saw a friend go through something awful…
Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier… When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.
A long, happy life doesn’t come from a perfect diet or exercise regimen. You’ll find it in those you surround yourself with.
My compilation on what it takes to live a long life is here.
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