You want to know how to get healthy? Eat better, exercise, and get more sleep… But you don't need me to tell you that. You know that.
So is health just a matter of biology? Nope. Research shows living well is more than marathons and what you put in your mouth. So let's learn the health-boosting stuff that nobody talks about.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The first wealth is health." But I'm a nerd, so that's not specific enough for me… What's your health really worth? Economists say it's the equivalent of making an extra $463,170 a year.
So keep reading. This is half-a-million dollars worth of insight.
Get your act together
What personality trait is the single best predictor of a long life? Conscientiousness. What is it? Basically, it's being "efficient, organized, neat, and systematic."
Having your act together doesn't just make you productive and a good worker, it also prevents dying.
Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood… By the end of the twentieth century, 70 percent of the Terman men and 51 percent of the Terman women had died. It was the unconscientious among them who had been dying in especially large numbers.
And being more conscientious isn't just correlated with celebrating 90th birthdays. It's also connected to higher incomes, job satisfaction, long marriages, and being healthier overall.
You need a feeling of control over your life. Unless you're a fan of heart attacks, that is:
Limited perceived control over life circumstances is associated with an increased risk of CVD mortality, independently of classical cardiovascular risk factors, and particularly among those at apparently low risk.
Being flaky might be fun but it's the straight-A students who have better health in their later years. And research demonstrates that the old saying is true: Wild rockstars really do live fast — and die young.
(To learn the six things the most organized people do every day, click here.)
Alright, you're being more conscientious. But that's not much fun. What dramatically improves your health and also makes you happier?
Relationships are essential. (Humans are optional.)
Having few friends is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's worse for your health than not exercising.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, did a meta-analysis of 148 studies and concluded that a lack of social support predicts all causes of death. People with a solid group of friends are 50 percent more likely to survive at any given time than those without one. Holt-Lunstad calculated that having few social ties is an equivalent mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even riskier than being obese or not exercising!
What's the best thing to have after heart surgery? A happy marriage. Married people were 2.5 times more likely to be alive 15 years after a coronary bypass. Happily married people were 3.2 times as likely to still be around.
And if you don't want to have a heart attack in the first place, kiss more often. It lowers cholesterol.
Now I said relationships are important. Not necessarily people. Your friends don't all have to be human.
But whether it's Fiona or Fido, you want to have friends you are close to and can rely on. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the answer to one question can likely predict whether you'll be alive and happy at age 80:
Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?
(To learn how to make friends easily — and strengthen the friendships you have — click here.)
If we could only hang with our friends all day long… But we can't. Ya gotta go to work. Is your job killing you? It literally might be. What makes a job bad for your health or good for it?
Work somewhere that treats you fairly
Feeling like you're not being paid fairly can lead to a heart attack:
Complementary to our experimental findings we find a strong and highly significant association between health outcomes, in particular cardiovascular health, and fairness of pay.
…employees who experienced a high level of justice at work had a lower risk of incident [coronary heart disease] than employees with a low or an intermediate level of justice (hazard ratio, 0.65; 95% confidence interval, 0.47-0.89). The hazard ratio did not materially change after additional adjustment for baseline cholesterol concentration, body mass index, hypertension, smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity.
The project was designed to test the assumption that certain psychosocial characteristics of occupational groups are associated with elevated myocardial infarction risk… Shift work and monotony were associated with significant excess risk.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
So you're organized, have tons of friends, and your workplace is as fair as Snow White. But what attitude do you need to stay healthy?
Don't be a jerk
Billy Joel sang "Only The Good Die Young." Billy's wrong. Don't listen to Billy.
The Terman Study followed a group of people from childhood to old age — over 80 years. They found the exact opposite: The bad die early.
…there's no real evidence that the good die young. In fact, although there are always some exceptions (which are therefore notable), generally speaking, it's the good ones who can actually help shape their fate; the bad die early, and the good do great.
(I have no data regarding relationship success with Uptown Girls.)
You won't live longer if you feel loved and cared for. You will live longer if you love and care for others.
Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
In many areas of life, including health, nice guys do not finish last:
…agreeableness, one of the Big Five personality dimensions, is linked with higher-quality friendships, successful parenting, better academic and career performance, and health.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert's secrets to getting people to like you, click here.)
Alright, time to correct a big myth you probably believe about wellness. When you think health, you probably think "reduce stress." In some cases, that can be a very bad idea.
Too little stress can be as bad as too much
No doubt, studies show too much stress can be bad for your health. But the important words there are "too much." Some stress can be also be healthy.
You need to strive toward goals to get the most out of life. If you want to perform — and live — optimally, you don't need zero stress. You need a Goldilocks-style "just right" amount.
What happens when you retire and stop challenging yourself? Your brain turns to mush, that's what:
We find that early retirement has a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal.
Now what if you stress yourself to the max… but you love what you're doing? The Terman Study found:
Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.
If you're unhappy and frazzled, yeah, you might need to ease up. But if you love your job? If you find it worthwhile and fulfilling?Work your ass off.
(To learn how to stop being lazy, click here.)
So what's a little thing you can do right now, in your head, without lifting a finger, that science says will make you healthier?
Forgive others. And yourself.
Being bitter over what someone did to you doesn't just make you angry; it can also make you sick:
"When harboured for a long time," says Wrosch, "bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease."
So don't be bitter. Forgiveness is good for your health:
Research has revealed that forgiveness may have beneficial effects for the forgiver's health… Trait forgiveness was significantly associated with fewer medications and less alcohol use, lower blood pressure and rate pressure product; state forgiveness was significantly associated with lower heart rate and fewer physical symptoms.
(To learn how to be more compassionate with yourself, click here.)
Alright, we covered a lot. Let's round it all up and learn the one thing you absolutely need to do to be healthier — which may even be more powerful than exercise.
Here's how to get healthy:
- Get your act together: It keeps you healthy. Bonus: it also keeps you out of jail.
- Relationships are essential: Got someone you can call at 4 a.m.? Or someone with four legs?
- Work someplace that treats you fairly: If you think 30 minutes on the treadmill makes up for 40 hours of misery, think again.
- Don't be a jerk: Ignore Billy Joel.
- Too little stress can be as bad as too much: Retirement is brain death followed by death-death.
- Forgive others. And yourself: If there are typos in this post, I forgive me.
Yes, you should exercise. Yes, eat better. Yes, get enough sleep. But don't forget the stuff we just talked about.
And if you're going to do only one thing to improve your health, frankly, hitting the gym every day might not be the best choice.
What was that 80-year-long Terman Study's most important recommendation for a longer life?
…connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.
Being an athlete is great. But you might be even healthier if you're a cheerleader for your friends.
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