The Harvard Research Subjects
In order to come up with a an answer to this question, Harvard decided to follow three groups of people. This was not a brief, one-time research project. In fact, they followed 800 people for their entire lives ... six to eight decades! Their research subjects fell into three groups:
* 268 socially advantaged Harvard graduates who had been born around 1920.
* 456 socially disadvantaged inner city men who had been born about 1930.
* 90 middle class, intellectually gifted women born around 1910.
The research was led by George Vaillant and detailed information is contained in the book, "Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development." You may want to read the book to get the full perspective on everything they learned after doing research for nearly a decade.
Highlights of the Harvard Research on Aging Well
What did George Vaillant learn about what it takes to live a long, happy life? While everything cannot be detailed in a brief post, the list below will give you a good idea of some of the highlights.
1. Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. (We can probably extrapolate this to include avoiding the use of illegal drugs.) They discovered that smoking was significantly more common in the "prematurely dead" than in those who were happy and healthy in later life. They also found that alcohol use harmed not only the health of the subjects, but also their relationships and other aspects of their lives. Additional lifestyle recommendations they suggested were to maintain a healthy weight and get regular exercise.
2. Education improves both longevity and happiness ... not only for the Harvard graduates but also for the inner city men who attended college. Those with more education had better habits and healthier lives.
3. A happy childhood was surprisingly important. Feeling loved by their mothers was a better indicator of high income later in life than the social class of their parents. However, if you did not have a loving, happy childhood, do not despair. The damage can be undone if, as an adult, you find a loving spouse and have trusted friends.
4. Good relationships are extremely important if you want to live a long, happy life. The ability to build strong relationships is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence. It can make a significance difference in your life. One important skill is the ability to form new relationships when old ones fade away.
5. Healthy coping skills were also important. The ability to cope well when dealing with painful thoughts and feelings was another indicator that you are likely to live a long, healthy life. According to the researchers, "Blaming others, being passive-aggressive, living in denial, acting out and retreating into fantasy were all maladaptive coping mechanisms associated with poor outcomes." On the other hand, people who were able to cope well dealt with difficult situations by using healthier skills such as "altruism, sublimation, suppression and humor."
6. Generativity was a term that many of us have never heard of before, but it also appeared to help people age well. All this means is the ability to "give back." It can mean serving as a mentor or advisor to younger adults. It can also mean serving your community and finding ways to help others.
While no one can guarantee that you, as an individual, will live a long, healthy life, those who are able to benefit from the ideas above will greatly increase their odds. After all, when it comes down to it, isn't that what we are all seeking?
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Photo credit: Google images - Dupage Senior Citizen Council