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Blog: How to live long and prosper

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8th Jan 2013
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After the indulgences of the festive period, it is worth considering the findings from a 60 year study into what makes us happy and healthy or sick and sad. 

It shows that we have a lot more influence over our long term health and well-being than previously thought...Your life and happiness are in your hands.  The study identified seven predictive factors that significantly influence how long you will live and how happy you will be later in life. The good news is that they are all partly in your control, the bad news is it is best if you start controlling them before you are 50.  When I read about the research currently led by George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, it struck a personal chord. My father died at the age of 63 when I was 26. At that age I used to think that anyone over 40 was old and I suddenly realised that 63 was in fact very young – far too young to die.  The study, which followed 237 students at Harvard University and 332 socially disadvantaged youths from inner-city Boston through health, disease, and death, has come up with some conclusions that hold no surprises like: don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol and get plenty of exercise. But it also shows that life-long learning, good personal relationships and altruistic behaviour are the key to a long and happy life. Vaillant points out that; "Despite great differences in parental social class, college-tested intelligence, current income and job status, the health decline of the 25 inner-city men who obtained a college education was no more rapid than of the Harvard College graduates."  The seven predictive factors
The seven controllable or protective factors that the study identified are: 

  1. Give up smoking
  2. Drink alcohol in moderation
  3. Get plenty of exercise and watch your weight
  4. Continue learning and educating yourself throughout your life
  5. Be altruistic and helpful to others
  6. Make time to nurture personal relationships and
  7. Develop coping strategies for managing stress.

  At the age of 50 sixty-six of the men in the study were in good health but only had four of the protective factors.  By the time they reached 80, fifty of them were in the category of ‘Sad and Sick’ or ‘prematurely dead’ (i.e. died before the average age of 70).  Not one of them was happy and well. This is rather shocking and certainly food for thought.  On one level it is very refreshing to know that the personal choices you make can have a critical impact on how long you live. On another it is a big responsibility to take on board and actually do something about. So how well are you controlling the seven factors above? 

  • What changes do you need to make to your lifestyle?
  • What do you need to start doing?
  • What do you need to stop doing?
  • What help or support might you need from family or friends or perhaps a health professional?

  As you consider your New Year resolutions, you may want to think a bit further into the future and ask yourself how long you would like to live. What quality of life do you want in your 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s? What are the implications of that on what you need to do this year?  The marshmallow test
It is also worth considering the results from the Marshmallow Test. Back in the 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a simple test with 4-year olds to assess their ability to delay gratification. He gave the test subjects one marshmallow and told them that they could eat it right away or if they waited for him to return in 20 minutes, they could have two. He would then leave the room.  Some gobbled the marshmallow within 30 seconds, others tried various distracting techniques like covering their eyes, singing, walking about the room or trying to sleep. About 70% of the children couldn’t resist the temptation and ate the marshmallow forfeiting the second.  Those that managed to wrestle with temptation and resist their urge to enjoy something right now were rewarded with a second marshmallow when the researcher returned within 15 minutes.  Many years after publishing a number of papers on the subject, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers and academic advisers of the 635 subjects who had participated in the original tests to see how they had progressed in later life.  The results were significant. The 30% of children who were able to resist temptation and delay gratification were more effective personally and socially. They had higher levels of self-confidence, assertiveness, trustworthiness, dependability and ability to control stress. They also had higher SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores.  The ones who ate the marshmallow very quickly were more likely to have behavioural problems, struggle with stressful situations, had trouble paying attention and found it difficult to maintain relationships. A further study into their thirties found that the low delayers had significantly higher body-mass index and were more likely to have had problems with drugs.  It’s not about intelligence
There is still a wide belief that raw intelligence is the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life, but Mischel argues that self-control is the defining factor that helps us utilise the intelligence we have at our disposal . . . or not.  He goes on to say: "What we are really measuring with the marshmallow test isn't willpower or self-control, it's much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it."  This is echoed by Professor Vaillant, he points out: "Life ain't easy, terrible things happen to everyone. You have to keep your sense of humour, give something of yourself to others, make friends who are younger than you, learn new things, and have fun."  It is also worth noting that he discovered that the subjects who were happy and healthy in their later years had ‘mature’ coping or adaptive strategies when it came to dealing with stress.   Those that were sad and sick had used ‘Immature’ defences like blaming others, denying they have problems and distracting themselves with alcohol and television.  What choices will you make in 2013?
So, as you make your choices about how you want to live your life in 2013 and beyond, I invite you to consider how well you are controlling how you think about your world. Are you being honest with yourself and accepting things need to change, are you perhaps blaming others or denying some of the facts?  Are you placing more importance on enjoyment in the short-term, or are you able to delay gratification and put in the effort now to address some of the gaps you may have in the seven protective factors that can have such a significant impact on your future health and happiness?  I’d be very interested to hear some of your thoughts and opinions about this . . . I respond to every comment made below. Remember . . . Stay Curious!  

David Klaasen is director of performance improvement consultancy, Inspired Working.

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