Saturday, September 07, 2013

Mind, Body, Spirit –> Lewis Terman And Long Life














In 1921, Lewis Terman out of Stanford University decided that he should start to track 1,500 bright children to see how their life would unfold.  He was a bit of data fiend, and his notes and research on these children and their adult lives are documented and explained in “The Longevity Project” by Howard Friendman and Leslie Martin.

While the book is somewhat interesting, I find that it can be summarized fairly quickly with a set of inferences and deductions from the meticulous historical records that Terman kept.

Here is my summary of the top principles:

1. Be thoughtful and conscientious in your approach to life

2. Have the right amount of stress and worry

3. Have some type of a social structure that you can lean on

It turns out that multiple behaviors are associated with longer and healthier life spans.  The authors, trying to take these very simple principles, work hard to expand this data into 200 pages, with some self quizzes so the reader can try and compare the desired behaviors to behaviors in their own lives.

The first character trait that pays off for a longer life span has to do with people that are conscientious in the way that they approach life.  This trait simply means that they are thoughtful and careful in how they go after things.  If you want to think about this, this would be the careful planner, the individual who is thinking about today and tomorrow.  This is the person that is well organized and well prepared.

Once you have this mindset, the rest of your life falls into place.  The rest of life is much more difficult to give any general rules about.  For instance, marriage in and of itself is not helpful in determining if the tracked subjects lived longer.  Instead, it turns out that “happily married” turns out to be important, especially if you are  man.  Or in other cases, you don’t need “the perfect job” to have a long life span.  You do need a job.  You do need to be extraordinarily happy in this job.  If it is an awful, an over stress producing job, you need to move out of it.  However, a dream job was not what drove long life.

As a matter of fact, the authors demonstrate that generally the idea that somebody would have the perfect job, be super cheery, and not have a worrier did not result in anything that correlated to a long life.  Those that did no worrying, were overly optimistic and carefree, basically did things like skip doctor appointments because they assumed that they didn’t have cancer.  Instead, you need to approach life in a thoughtful manner and realize that not all that happens will be good. 

If having carefree existence does not help, the opposite was not true: having a fully stress life (such as warfare and divorce) does not help.  Constantly worrying and thinking that to live is to be doomed to some type of a punishing existence is the opposite rails, and also had some very bad results.

Speaking of worrying, they have a rather special case that they call out.  They stole a term from Martin Seligman, who is the father of positive psychology, called call catastrophizers.  These were the people that believed that once something started to go wrong, everything was going to go wrong.  They could not have a simple problem, and instead they would perceive that they had a disaster.  So, the net is to not have a carefree life, but you should also not see disaster behind every curve.

You need stress, but not too much stress.  You need to aim at the right target and push yourself, but not push your self too hard.  This is especially interesting for how we are to push our children, and the data that Terman found.

Pushing a child too hard seemed to plague a child through their life.  The data basically shows that when a child was pushed hard to read early and to enter school early, the child started down a path of inappropriate stress.  In the data, there were parents that determined that they were going to “push” their children to do better or shoot higher.  This unfortunately means that these children were always working slightly beyond their ability, and this unfortunate “head start” turned in a path that generally was not helpful over the entire life of the child.

Living the carefree life, or as they call out in their myth questions “play more golf,” does not make one live longer.  We were made for stress, and the very simple example of this is apparent to anyone that has ever tried to get into shape:  too much rest does not result in a healthy body.In all things balance, and balance in all things.  Pushy parents only hurt their children.  Having periods of good stress and good rest results in very good health.

As a general principle, the key to a strong body is made up of cycling.  You run, bike or lift weights.  This does not make you stronger.  It tires you out.  Once you are tired out, the body comes back and rebuilds the body stronger.  You need the stress and you need the rest.  It is only when these two things are present, does the athlete get better.

Finally, the key for good life also means that you have some type of social support structure.  The subjects that were studied were tied to their own time, and I can see this come out in the book.  For most of these subjects, the man was expected to go off to work and bring home the bread.  It turns out that in this environment, husbands looked to their wives to give them the support that they needed to thrive.  So, it turns out that a happy marriage really helped husbands live longer. 

The opposite was not true for the wives.  In general, women of this age had more ability to gain enough social support outside of the marriage to be healthful.  This has been documented many places outside of the book, and should be no surprise to anybody that has read this type of literature before.  You do not need a thousand friends.  You do not need to have “soul mates.”  What you need is a set of good relationships and friends that will support you, and where you feel a sense of belonging.  Many men that lived long lives found this environment with their wives.  Unfortunately, these men also tended to die quickly once their wives died.

The logical next step in this train of thought and research is to ask “what was the exact behaviors that the conscientious had.  I think it is obvious:

a. They would eat the right stuff and not smoke or do other damaging activities

b. They would stay physically active because the knew it was good for their outlook

c. The would schedule Doctor appointments

d. They would know that having a set of friends was simply part of having a good life

The point is, however, the conscientious person will do this naturally and gravitate toward this behavior.  They will build up a schedule and a life style that results in a long life.  Those that aren’t this way, simply ignore the warning signs.

The ultimate question is “how do I become more thoughtful in the way that I live life.”

I personally, for one, hope that you read my blog and apply its principles.

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