Can a positive mindset really help you stay younger longer?
A long, full and vibrant life has long been seen as an enviable stroke of good luck, the result of good genes or perhaps a gift from the gods. As technology continues to provide new medical breakthroughs that can expand our lifespans, the idea of a long life seems to be an attainable goal for most of us.
But there’s a catch, says David Ekerdt, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of Kansas.
While David acknowledges that a longer life has become a valued public health objective, he observes that, “At the individual level, longer lives are a goal only if [the individual] remains healthy.”
His study, “Is longevity a value for older adults?” was published in December in the Journal of Aging Studies. He looked at aging adults from China, Germany and the U.S. and found they all shared one common belief: A long life requires good health to make it worthwhile.
Recent research shows the path to long-term health may not be as dependent on genes or good luck as we once thought; science shows that our thoughts and actions play a bigger role in overall health than we previously realized.
Starting Younger, Living Better
If it’s a long, happy life you’re after, the time to start is now—regardless of whether you’re 5 or 35. The foundation for a long life is established early on; the habits and mindset you pick up along the way will affect your health much more than your family traits and curses.
George Vaillant, director emeritus of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, says how long and how well we live is about much more than our genes, jobs, physical exercise or diet.
The Harvard study, launched in 1938, examines what creates a long, healthy life. Today, it extends to the descendants of that original research project and gives an unprecedented look into what allows us to live better.
“Genetics has much less effect on how long someone lives than their habits,” says George, who headed the study for 30 years. He found alcoholism and smoking to be the two deadliest practices, while moderate exercise and a stable weight tend to equal a longer life. Beyond that, the research shows, longevity depends upon our emotions and relationships.
“People who live a long time have a lot of positive emotion,” he says. “And that means being part of a community. It’s hard to have positive emotion on a deserted island; you need other people.”
Finding Your Tribe
Positive emotions and good relationships are not only bedrock principles of positive psychology; they have been found to be instrumental to good health. While unhappy marriages and stressful relationships have been proven deterrents to good health, individuals with healthy relationships have 35 percent fewer illnesses.
“The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” George says.
Well-being researcher Dan Buettner agrees. The Blue Zones author has studied what leads to longer, more fulfilling lives and has found that not only are happiness and good health tightly intertwined, but that social interaction can help you live longer and better.
“We are more likely to be happy if we get five to seven hours of meaningful social interaction a day,” he says. “Making sure that you have happy friends affects how long you live, because that’s contagious. And focusing on your immediate social network is more important than either diet or exercise programs when it comes to living a long, happy, healthy life.”
He says having five positive-minded people who share interests in recreation—whether it’s golfing, walking or gardening—and who truly care about you will have powerful incremental effects on your well-being.
“That is almost the surest thing you can do in the long run for both making it to a healthy age 90 or 95 and enjoying the journey. [Happiness adds] about eight years to your life expectancy; it’s almost as good for you as quitting smoking.”
Tending to Your Telomeres
If the notion that simply being happy and focusing on positive relationships can offset aging seems hard to believe, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., has the proof. Elissa co-authored the book, The Telomere Effect with 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., and their research shows that greater happiness equals longer lives.
Telomeres—those caps at the end of each strand of DNA—protect our chromosomes and affect how quickly and how well our cells age. Telomeres shorten as we age, but practices like smoking, lack of exercise, a poor diet and stress also can shorten them.
But now, Elissa says, there’s growing proof that just changing your mindset can change your telomeres, leading to a longer, happier life.
Focusing on the positive and finding ways to be fully engaged with your life has a proven association with longer telomeres. Practices like meditation, tai chi and qigong can reduce stress and increase the production of telomerase, an enzyme that replenishes telomeres.
Adopting happiness practices and learning to focus on the positives are scientifically proven to be some of the most beneficial practices for maintaining the length of telomeres.
“Mindset and mental health are some of the most important parts of healthy aging,” Elissa says. “We can’t forget the daily work of good, healthy habits…but fewer people realize that where we put our attention is also critically important.”
Don’t miss Paula’s interview on the Live Happy Now podcast with Dr. Joe Bates as he explains how to use brain exercises to keep your mind young and fit.