Naturally, people ask, "What are the top 10 tips for health and happiness?" Or even more to the point, "What is the single most important tip to living longer and happier?" Is it telling jokes and laughing a lot? Maybe it is that hour in the gym every morning at 6 a.m.? Or is it vowing to lose that extra 10 pounds? Could the secret be eating enough whole grains, broccoli and blueberries? Could the trick be keeping a positive outlook and whistling while you work? Or remembering to give thanks each day for your good fortune -- is that what matters most?
The single most important bit of advice we can offer all you tip-seekers and list-makers is: Throw away your lists! We live in a self-help society full of lists and resolutions: Lose weight. Sleep enough hours. Hit the gym. Cut out the fast food. Quit smoking. Drink less, etc. You know the list. Many of us obsess even further: Lower your body mass index (BMI) to 22. Sleep eight hours and 10 minutes each night. Count the miles jogged. Worry about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils (fatty acids) in your diet. Drink 1.5 glasses of red wine each day for the resveratrol.
For most people, they simply don't produce the desired effects. After losing four pounds, they're off their diets and gaining seven or eight pounds. They hit the gym for a month, then tire out and return to the couch. Parties, hot dogs and six-packs creep back in. And for those who were already in pretty good shape, the forbidding new lists add worry, time and expense, all for minimal additional benefit. Some can't fall asleep because they're worrying about how much they should sleep!
For two decades, we have been studying the predictors, patterns and pathways of long-term health and long life. We call it The Longevity Project and we have been scientifically analyzing the lives many hundreds of men and women who thrived or languished throughout the 20th century. The findings continually surprise us.
The healthiest individuals didn't have lists of health advice. Rather, they lived meaningful, committed lives. They worked hard. They achieved much for their families. They nurtured close relationships. They were persistent, responsible and successful. They were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves. Their health came naturally as part of their active, achieving and dependable lives. No lists were needed.
It's not that overeating, smoking, inactivity, insufficient sleep, substance abuse and poor diets are not relevant to health. They certainly are harmful. But we all already know that! So why isn't everyone healthy and happy? The important question is how to increase the chances of healthier patterns, maintain them over the long term and do so in a not-too-burdensome, rewarding way.
What can be done? What does our research on The Longevity Project tell us will work? If you are already worrying about broccoli and blueberries, you don't need your lists; you're probably already on a healthy path. What about the rest of us?
One of the best ways to get yourself on a healthy pathway -- one of healthy long-term patterns -- is to associate with other healthy, active, involved individuals. So stop worrying about the top 10 tips. Instead, look around and see who you are spending time with. A key lesson of The Longevity Project -- one of the secrets of longevity -- is to choose jobs, join social groups, and select hobbies that will lead you to a whole host of consequential and naturally healthy activities.
It is heartening to know that embracing the lessons of The Longevity Project and persistently striving for a socially richer and more productive life will significantly increase the odds of a long and happy life as well.
Dr. Howard Friedman and Dr. Leslie Martin bust myths about achieving health and long life.
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