While Stanford University psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman may not be a household name, we certainly all know him as the “Stanford” in the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Since Terman was interested in tracking intelligence and its effect on life success, he started a study in 1921 where he had San Francisco teachers identify 1500 gifted students (an interesting bunch – cholesterol expert Ancel Keys, atomic physicist Norris Bradbury, and I Love Lucy writer Jess Oppenheimer are just a few) for him to follow throughout their lives to see if it was really possible to predict intellectual leadership. In the ’90s Drs. Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin of the University of California at Riverside decided to follow up on Terman’s study participants to see who lived the longest and what their secrets might have been, and thereby was born The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study.
While we tend to believe that good education, less stress, and happiness lead to a long life, it’s just not the case. And that is what I found most interesting about this book; most of the things we assume will help us live longer (like early education, early retirement marriage, and lots of laughter) really do not and many of the things we wish we could live without (job stress, deadlines, and unhappiness) seem to go along with a longer life span.
For instance, we tend to think of divorce as a negative but necessary in some cases option. Interestingly enough, men who divorced without remarrying tended to die earlier while women in the same situation lived longer, leading the authors to speculate that staying single or divorced as opposed to sticking it out in a bad marriage may be healthier for women. Even more surprising, women who outlived their husbands tended to go on to lead long lives, while in most cases men who outlived their wives died shortly after their wives’ passing.
With all the focus on gratitude and happiness today, you would think that a happy disposition would lead to a longer life, but that is also not true. In this study the kids who were described as “extraordinarily cheerful and optimistic,” were in fact the ones who did not live as long. And those boring serious kids, the ones who worried about school and studied hard, who were conscientious and always worked? They lived the longest.
And the factor that best predicted long life? Work. Yes, work with all the stress and worry that goes with it. “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.” It seems that productivity and the sense of goal accomplishment is what keeps us going, not necessarily being happy. “This production orientation mattered more than their social relationships or their sense of happiness or well-being.”
With several self-tests in each section to help you decide where you sit on the longevity continuum, The Longevity Project is an interesting study. Whether you agree with every conclusion the authors make or not, the information in itself will make you question your assumptions about how to live a long life.