Prudence (not peace) of mind

by March 13, 2011

Less-competitive individuals may find solace in the idea that happiness, rather than say, professional success, is the key to a long, healthy life. Happiness means lower stress, which in turns means lower blood pressure, fewer ‘risky behaviours’, and more functional social relations. By contrast, hyper-driven, “Type A” individuals are often thought to be digging themselves an early grave with a stress-shaped shovel. Evidence of this narrative can be found all around us. The very idea of “working for the weekend” is predicated on the assumption that those happy, stress-free days are what keep us humans going. To this day, when I mention one of my more laid-back childhood friends, my parents will roll their eyes and say things like “well, at least he’ll never have an ulcer”. He may not, but if new research is right, his relaxed attitude may have nothing to do with it.

In a recent article in Britain’s Science Daily, psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin discuss findings, recently published in their book The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street Press), that turn many assumptions on their head–not the least of which is the idea that happiness is a strong predictor of a long, healthy life. Using data from the multi-decade study mentioned in their title, a study begun in 1921 by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, Friedman and Martin found that happiness, particularly of the devil-may-care type, was actually associated with a shorter average lifespan.

From the Science Daily article:

“One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest,” [said Martin] … While an optimistic approach can be helpful in a crisis, “we found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that ‘everything will be just fine’ can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health go together because they have common roots.”

Read the rest of the article here.