For decades we’ve been told that stress can kill you, that happy people live longer and that hours in the gym will keep you healthy. Now researchers have turned this kind of long-cherished conventional wisdom on its head. The new mantra: Stress can be good for you. Serious people may live longer than those with sunny dispositions. The treadmill may not hold the key to longevity.
These conclusions come from a unique study, which followed 1,500 Californians across eight decades. The study is described in a new book, “The Longevity Project.” Study co-author Leslie Martin says that some of the new results surprised both her and her co-author, Howard Friedman.
So, if what we’ve been told isn’t true, what can we do to live a long life? Below are eight suggestions gleaned from the longevity study.
Not all stress is the same. If you hate your job, ditch it before the stress kills you. But, if you love your job, don’t sweat the stress.
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As it turns out, there’s good stress and bad stress. If you’ve got a job where your boss is out to get you or you’re experiencing sexual harassment, that’s bad stress. But if your stress arises out of a job that you love, then the stress won’t hurt you, Martin says. In fact, some of the people who lived the longest were those who were completely absorbed by their careers, working long hours. The key to good job stress is to find work that engages you and makes you feel productive.
Reach out and touch someone — on a regular basis. People who connect with friends and family tend to live longer. So, Martin says, one of the best things you can do is strengthen social ties. “And you get an extra benefit if you have social connections that involve helping others,” she adds.
If you’re disconnected, Martin recommends joining social groups or volunteering.
Don’t make your dog your best friend. Pets are all well and good, but they are no substitute for human contact. People with pets didn’t live any longer than others in the study. And if they substituted pets for human connections, they lived shorter lives.
Don’t worry about worrying. If you’re a worrier, that may be a good thing. If you’re not, maybe you need to be. “There is a beneficial type of worrying,” Martin says. “When you worry about things, you play out scenarios, you plan for possibilities. That kind of worrying is good. If you’re worrying over something you have no control over – that’s bad.”
Be careful about who you choose to marry. A good marriage may lead to longevity, but a bad marriage – and divorce – can shave years off your life. “Divorce is harmful,” Martin says. “A man can mitigate the damage from divorce by being remarried. Women are almost as well off staying single after a divorce. And contrary to what’s been found in other studies, being steadily single is virtually as good as being in a long term marriage.”
If you’re an exceedingly sunny person, tone it down a bit. “People tend to think of cheerfulness as good, but we found exactly the opposite,” Martin says. “Cheerful kids lived shorter lives. That was a big shocker.”
Overly optimistic people tend not to be as careful as those who have a more serious take on life. “If you’re one of those people who expects things will always turn out great, you may benefit from listening to the perspectives of others,” Martin says. “Awareness is a key component. And being a little more prepared and a little more risk-averse.”
If you hate the gym, don’t go. While it’s good to be fit, you’ll never stick with an exercise regimen that you hate or that bores you. Back when this study started – in the 20s – people didn’t jog. But some of them still lived long lives. The key, Martin says, is to stay active doing something you enjoy, whether that’s gardening, woodworking – whatever is your passion.
Don’t retire early. A lot of people think that early retirement will help them live longer, but the study shows that the opposite might be true. Looking at study volunteers who were still working in their 70s, Martin and her co-author concluded, “the continually productive men and women lived much longer than their laid-back comrades.”
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