This summer the Pirates of the Caribbean series returned to movie theaters, led by the lovable scoundrel Captain Jack Sparrow and his quest for the fountain of youth. Unfortunately, that fountain isn’t an option to those of us in the “real world,” but our society is clearly obsessed with the secret to long life. A recent USA Today story shared the results of a 90-year study that followed 1,528 Americans and debunked several myths for achieving long life.
Researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin reported their conclusions in the book The Longevity Project. At the core of their research is a study started by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman in 1921. Here are five of their key myths about thriving:
1. Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to a longer life.
Reality: In the study, children described as “extraordinarily cheerful and optimistic,” or “never worries” were less likely to reach an old age. This was a “bombshell” for the researchers. Participants who lived long, happy lives were not cynical rebels and loners but accomplished people satisfied with their lives. Many knew that worrying is sometimes a good thing.
2. Going to the gym isn’t enough to keep you healthy.
Reality: Being active in middle age was most important to health and longevity in the study. But rather than vow to do something to get in shape (like jogging) and then hate it and not stick with it, people should find something they like to do.
3. Lighten up; being serious is bad for you.
Reality: One of the best childhood personality predictors of longevity was conscientiousness — the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person. The reasoning was that such people protect their health and take fewer risks. But what characterized those who thrived was a combination of persistence, dependability and the help of others. Young adults who were thrifty, persistent, detail-oriented and responsible lived longest.
4. Take it easy and don’t work so hard. You’ll live longer.
Reality: Those with the most career success were the least likely to die young. Among participants who were still working in their 70s, the continually productive men and women lived much longer than the laid-back comrades. It wasn’t the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.
5. Get married and you will live longer.
Reality: The authors examined the remarried, steadily married, divorced, and steadily single and found many differences among the groups and between genders. They found that a satisfying and happy marriage is a great indicator of future health and long life, but being single for a woman can be just as healthy as being in a marriage. Among men, those who stayed married lived the longest.
While so many seek the answer to long life, most studies seem to indicate that it may be deceivingly simple. Common threads of life expectancy seem to crop up in most studies, and frequent themes emerge: eating a balanced diet, not engaging in excessive or risky behavior, maintaining and pursuing goals, and having a clear sense of purpose well past retirement. Most surprising was the revelation that working longer may be the key to old age – not a relaxing retirement.
Even Captain Jack discovered that what truly made him feel alive was the thrill of new adventures. With an aging workforce that may work well beyond their retirement age, employers have even more reason to encourage healthy lifestyle habits among their employees – and those employees have a convincing reason to embrace them.