People are living longer than ever. In fact, I just saw a TV news report about a woman celebrating her 116th birthday who, until recently, was still mowing her own lawn. Exuding more vitality than many folks half her age, she made me wonder: What contributes to healthy aging well into our golden years—and perhaps even our centenarian years?
I decided to speak to Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has unveiled some of the determinants of aging well, having spent more than half of his life at the helm of the Grant Study of Adult Development.
One of the longest-running studies on human development, the Grant Study has closely tracked the emotional and physical health of 268 Harvard men as they aged since 1938.
Habits, not heredity, are more important for health
George has documented the findings of the Grant Study in three illuminating books. His first book, 1977’s Adaptation to Life, the now-classic tome on adult development, examined how the men were coping up to age 55 and identified various positive and negative outcomes. Aging Well followed 25 years later and showed that healthy physical and emotional aging from 55 to 80 is less dependent on genes and more on lifestyle choices, such as avoiding alcohol and tobacco abuse, engaging in regular light exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, exhibiting an adaptive coping style and having a loving marriage.
Now, George’s latest book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, published more than 75 years after the study’s start, follows a few dozen of the surviving men who are now in their 90s. Many of them, like the centenarian woman I mentioned earlier, are thriving far beyond conventional retirement. So what’s their secret?
“Habits formed before age 50, not heredity, are more important for growing old gracefully, well into our 90s and beyond,” George says.
All you need is love
However, even more important for positive aging and coping with stress is having warm, nurturing relationships. “Relationships can help us recover from a damaging past such as the bleakest of childhoods even many decades later,” George says. What’s more, strong bonds formed early in life have a protective factor down the road.
He’s found that positive emotions, namely love, is the key ingredient for healthy aging well into our golden years and beyond. “Having had a loving and stable marriage at 50 predicted mental and physical health at 80 better than did either exercise or weight,” he says. “Visceral things like the positive emotions of love, hope and joy affect our health.”
In fact, the effect of positive emotion on our nervous system is similar to the relaxation response triggered through meditation. Positive emotions, like love, reduce our basal metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tension, all leading to better health. In other words, love can literally heal and strengthen our heart.
One simple way of reaping heart health benefits and aging well is it to put ourselves into the loving embrace of others on a daily basis, George says, because not only does “heartfelt” love feel good, but also it’s good for us.
And, who knows, perhaps it’ll lead us to be thriving at 116 as well!
New book by Lea Waters puts focus on positive parenting.
Lea Waters, Ph.D., the Gerry Higgins Chair in Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the president of the International Positive Psychology Association, has witnessed the powerful effects of strengths on students through her award-winning work with schools over the past decade. Lea knew that using strengths at home could be even more powerful and began applying them with her kids to help foster optimism and resilience. Her book is The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish
LIVE HAPPY: What is strength-based parenting?
LEA WATERS: Strength-based parenting (SBP) is an approach that focuses first on your child’s strengths—their talents, positive qualities, what your child does well—before attending to their faults and shortcomings.
“Rather than putting your attention on fixing what’s wrong with your kids, it’s about switching your focus to amplify what’s right.”
LH: How did you come up with the strength switch and how does it work?
LW: Once I trained myself what to look for, I could see strengths easily and everywhere. This was when life was calm and happy and my brain could focus. However, when I was stressed and tired or when my kids were acting out, I found it hard to see their strengths. I needed a real-time mental tool to short-circuit the negativity. I came up with the strength switch.
I literally picture a switch and watch it flick inside my head to turn the spotlight off the negative and on the positive. It reminds me that to be a successful strength-based parent, I need to look at what my kids have done right before I look at what they’ve done wrong.
Over eight thousand years ago, the pomegranate became one of the first cultivated fruits. Since then, it has been symbolized with prosperity, hope and abundance throughout the world. The luscious fruit has also played – and continues to play – a pivotal role in many cultural wedding ceremonies. The bride would often be given a pomegranate with the wish of her having as many kids as seeds!Its name derives from the Middle French “pomme garnete” and means “seeded apple.”A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, the luxurious, scarlet pomegranate has traditionally been enjoyed for both its decorative beauty in holiday arrangements as well as for its delicious sweet taste and nutritive qualities.
Pomegranates are immensely popular worldwide and are considered a super food because they area powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. Full of flavor and nutrition, while low in calories, they are the perfect go-to snack for anytime. They are an excellent source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C, and potassium, a key mineral that assists with fluid regulation, and is associated with lowered blood pressure,reduced risk of stroke, and increased bone health. Pomegranates contain an incredibly high level of the three polyphenols – tannins, anthocyanins, andellagic acid – potent antioxidants that have been found to promote healthy cell growth, fight inflammation, and reduce certain cancers.
When purchasing pomegranates, select ones with firm and taut skin. While a smooth outer skin is more aesthetically appealing than a blemished one, surface abrasions do not affect the quality of the fruit. Pomegranates should feel heavy when picked up because they are full of juice. They naturally range in color from a medium to a deep red. Whole pomegranates will last for several days when kept away from sunlight at room temperature and up to three months when refrigerated in plastic bags. Once cut, the seeds can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen up to six months. A simple trick to easily de-seed a pomegranate is to cut off the crown and cut the pomegranate into sections. Next, place the sections into a bowl of water and scoop out the insides. The “arils,” or the glistening white jewels of the pomegranate, will sink to the bottom while the rind and white membrane will easily separate and float to the top. Strain the water and enjoy the arils,seeds and all! They are a simple delicious snack that can be enjoyed alone,squeezed into a juice, or baked into whole grain muffins. My family and I often sprinkle them over our salads, oatmeal, and yogurt.
But first,a warning you may want to heed from my 4 year-old son before cleaning and eating pomegranates: “be sure to wear a black shirt so if you squirt yourself it won’t stain!” This lesson was only learned after many early mornings where he and my husband would eagerly dash downstairs to the kitchen, donning matching white tees, to dive into the pomegranates. Soon afterwards, with sated bellies and taste buds, all that would remain is a whole lot of rind – and two ruby-stained tee-shirts!
Pomegranate and Pear Christmas Salad
1 bunch fresh organic spinach, washed and torn into small pieces
2 TBSP pomegranate seeds
1 pear, halved and thinly sliced
¼red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 TBSP gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
2 TBSP pecans, chopped
Toss spinach with red onion slices in a large serving plate. Fan out pear slices from center of the dish. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds, gorgonzola, and pecans on top. Serve with simple balsamic vinaigrette or your favorite dressing!
It can be destructive or healthy—the choice is up to you
I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t live
I can’t give anymore
I remember the first time I heard these lyrics, sung by Mariah Carey—a cover of a desperately emotional ballad that equates intense longing with an ideal form of romantic passion.
From Billboard music charts to blockbuster films, popular culture perpetuates this notion that true love is an uncontrollable feeling of being “swept away.”
Though this kind of unbridled passion has an enormous appeal, both in popular culture and in life, “it can be harmful to our well-being and relationships,” says Robert (Bob) Vallerand, Ph.D., past president of the Canadian Psychological Association and the International Positive Psychology Association.
In his new book, The Psychology of Passion, the social psychologist reports an all-consuming or “obsessive passion” is associated with not trusting one’s partner. Those who are obsessively passionate toward their lovers are insecure and preoccupied with protecting their egos rather than being attuned to their partners, he says. They tend to be defensive, controlling and have to win all the time.
Not exactly the stuff of Prince Charming.
Obsessive passion is as detrimental to a relationship as having no passion at all. In fact, women in relationships with obsessively passionate men reported feeling less satisfied sexually and overall, Bob says, despite what popular culture would have you think.
Of course, in the throes of early romance we may feel distracted and focus on our partners at the exclusion of everything else. We might while away time daydreaming at our desks instead of drafting those important memos, or mentally replaying every word from our most recent conversations. And we feel butterflies in our stomachs just thinking of our partners.
What would life be without these exhilarating experiences? It’s healthy to savor these moments. However, problems arise when we are stuck at this stage and don’t develop. Our relationship stagnates and often falls apart, research finds.
Cultivating a healthy passion
Relationships with a “healthy,” or what Bob calls a “harmonious passion,” are those in which we are in control of our emotions. We retain our identity, maintain balance, experience greater intimacy, and handle conflict better—all of which leads to a more mature relationship, according to Bob’s research.
Fortunately, we can learn to cultivate harmonious passion. Instead of losing yourself in a new relationship, maintain the friends and interests you had before the relationship began. It’s tempting to dive into a new love and forget about everything else in your life, but certainly not healthy for your sense of identity. And when the intensity of an early love dissipates (or disappears), you’ll need the rest of your life to fall back on!
In order to maintain your identity, reflect upon your unique strengths and interests, Bob says. Find something you both enjoy and share it with your partner. Research shows that engaging in exciting activities together increases attraction. And of course, you should try to avoid serious competition, which may be destructive to the relationship, Bob says. The point is to have fun together, not to win.
So, if you’re a chess wizard or your partner is a competitive swimmer, you might want to avoid those activities. This is about connecting, not winning!
Finally, find time to share something good that you experience with your partner every day. This is another simple way to build a healthy passion, Bob says.
And when it comes to those dramatic love songs, perhaps you can look to them for entertainment, not emulation.