The Happiness Track: The Life Stories We Tell for Health
Genetics play a role in our health, but we also have control in the choices we make about how we live.
I often hear 50-year-olds saying, “I’m getting old” and see some of them practically hobbling along, as if in time to their own script. But then I know 70-year-olds who say, “I keep forgetting I’m not 16!”—like my mom, who bikes around a big city for miles, takes adult professional ballet classes for an hour and a half a day, and chainsaws trees down and repairs her rooftop on the weekend.
Certainly, genetics plays a factor here: Some people are born lucky. We also know that living through stressful life experiences—things we can’t control—can accelerate aging: Some people are unlucky.
But there’s an important caveat that has to do with how our luck—or lack of it—plays out over a lifetime. There is growing evidence that how some genes are expressed—for good or ill—has to do with how we choose to live. Meanwhile, how our bodies respond to stressful events turns out to have a lot to do with how we live—the things we can control.
For example: If compassion and community service are an integral part of our life, the effects of the stressful life experience can be effectively erased and our mortality is not affected. This good news comes from a fascinating study by psychologist Michael Poulin PhD at the University of Buffalo, who reports that “there was no link between stress and health among people who reported helping their friends and neighbors in the past year. But among people who didn’t engage in such helping, stressful life events predicted decreased odds of survival over the next five years.”
So helping others can help prevent the ravages of stress—and improve your own chance of survival. However, Dr. Poulin cautions, “Helping appears to only be good for you if you really care about those you’re helping. In two separate studies, I found that volunteering on behalf of strangers weakens the link between stress and health—but only for volunteers who have generally positive views of other people. In other words, helping may be good for you specifically to the extent you’re likely to experience compassion for those you help.”
Thus the healing power of compassion is deeply rooted—perhaps compassion is a trigger for genetic expression that promotes longevity?
Let’s explore some more.
Countless studies have now demonstrated that taking a sugar pill believing it is medicine can help us improve our symptoms, whatever they are. That’s the good old placebo effect. Similarly, if we think of stress as a positive feeling of excitement and energy, we don’t experience the negative impacts on our health and well-being. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves have huge implications for our own health. We know that. But as we age, it also matters whom we tell our stories to.
For example, one study from Bremen, Germany, found that elderly people who helped adolescents work on a life problem improved their own cognitive performance at the same time. The simple yet empowering act of advising a younger person helped boost the brainpower of the elder, when measured on a word test.
Another study found that older adults who shared a memorized story with children improved their own memory. Once again, the very act of being in a mentorship role with a younger person helped the elder boost their mental abilities.
Still more research shows that the older we grow in years, the greater our levels of acceptance of our emotions—and, as a consequence, we feel less anger and anxiety. This finding suggests that there is something to be said for the expression older and wiser. After all, no matter how old you are, you can look back on your life and see where experience has indeed taught you life lessons that have made you a deeper, more reflective, conscious, and aware human being. This wisdom may be the reason that, in social conflicts, studies show that older people tend to take a more thoughtful stance: emphasizing the need for multiple perspectives, making room for compromise, and recognizing the limits of knowledge.
And this wisdom is contagious: In one study, closeness to a grandparent was associated with reduced emotional problems, reduced hyperactivity, and increased prosocial behaviors.
I think all this science is getting to the roots of the obvious: Caring for others and sharing our wisdom helps keep us alive and healthy. It also makes me think of my mom. She fasts half the day, is vegetarian, and in addition to her high level of physical activity she takes cozy naps. All good. Then again, she smokes, eats copious amounts of cheese, and enjoys a few glasses of wine daily. But the most important secret to her vitality is the fact that she loves life, is deeply grateful for every day, lives very much in the moment, enjoys playing pranks on people, gives money to every single beggar she encounters, and lives to help others. She keeps forgetting she’s not 16, and so does everyone else. We’re all still trying to keep up with her!