Hey, you, over there, obsessing over losing those last few pounds, or what cream to buy for that darn wrinkle that seemed to appear out of nowhere. We hope you won’t mind if we point out that you might be wasting your valuable time, according to science writer Marta Zaraska.
Zaraska’s bestselling book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, presents a research-driven case for going Marie Kondo on such superficial fluff and directing your efforts, instead, to nurturing what Zaraska calls “soft health drivers.”
Soft health drivers are Zaraska’s term for what the World Health Organization refers to as “social determinants of health,” which are the personal and interpersonal conditions under which we live, work, and play. They’re one of a number of science-based factors that influence how healthy we are, how long we live, and how well we age. While “social factors” might sound a bit “woo woo,” the fact is they were important enough for the World Health Organization to create the Commission on Social Determinants of Health in an effort to address them (with the hope of ultimately creating better social factors for everyone).
Based on exhaustive research, Zaraska has come to the conclusion that if our goal is to live longer and better, we need to spend more time cultivating these healthy habits shared by people who don’t age… or, at least, who don’t appear to. Don’t miss these 50 ways to age in reverse, and remember, it’s never too late to change, even for an old standard like McDonald’s, which is just now making these 8 major upgrades.
Although how long we live and how well we age is, in part, inherited, Zaraska’s research has led her to conclude that our genes account for only 20 to 25 percent of the total picture. What’s more significant, Zaraska believes, is the quality of our relationships with the people who are, or who are supposed to be, closest to us. Indeed, a 2020 study demonstrated that social isolation is associated with higher levels of inflammation. Inflammation is associated with a number of illnesses and conditions (including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) that can shorten our lifespan and interfere with our quality of life.
Yet, as many as 43 percent of American adults over the age of 60 find themselves feeling lonely, and it’s not because they live alone. Rather, it’s because they feel alone, even with their spouses. A 2008 study found that three out of 10 marriages are “severely discordant.”
To find your way out of feelings of isolation, Zaraska recommends prioritizing your close personal relationships, particularly with your partner. And by prioritizing, she means making a concerted effort to make one another happy, which includes talking to one another about the good things that happen in your daily lives, doing fun things together, and working through conflict as if you’re on the same side. (Related: For a longer life, try eating these 20 foods every day.)
Get the latest on health, wellness, and aging delivered daily directly into your inbox by subscribing to our daily newsletter.
“Apart from shunning tobacco, investing in a thriving social life might be the best thing you could do for your longevity,” Zaraska writes. Having a strong social support network (i.e., people you can go to for emotional, social, or even financial support, as needed) is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of premature death.
Many people lack such a network, Zaraska observes, which is unfortunate, but fixable. Zaraska recommends reaching out to friends and making plans to get together even if those plans must be remote for now. If you feel you’re lacking friends, open yourself up to meeting people through activities you truly enjoy. If you feel you’re lacking time, then multitask, Zaraska advises, combining, say, exercising with socializing. (Related: Here are 14 ways your friends could be making you gain weight.)
“Helping others reduces stress… and sets off a cascade of physiological changes in our bodies that improve our health,” Zaraska writes. These include reducing blood pressure and decreasing inflammation, which can result in a longer, more well-lived life.
Zaraska recommends practicing random acts of kindness, noting that studies show acts of kindness reduce stress and inflammation. Or volunteer, since people who volunteer have lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Even donating money to causes that matter to you can help. (Related: These food stories will warm even the most jaded of hearts.)
A 2019 study indicates that optimism is associated with a longer life span and even “exceptional longevity,” which is defined as living to age 85 or beyond. Zaraska, herself, has observed that a positive outlook can translate to an additional 10 years of life on average.
Therefore, assuming living a long, happy life is important to you, Zaraska recommends doing whatever you can to cultivate a “sunny disposition,” even if that means working to change your personality (research indicates “personality can indeed be altered”). If all else fails, “wait,” Zaraska advises, because “human nature tends to shift with age” toward the less neurotic and the more agreeable. (Related: Don’t be surprised if it turns out your diet has been holding you back from being your happiest self.)
Last but by no means least, people who live long and age well tend to cultivate a quality Zaraska refers to as “conscientiousness.” Conscientiousness is the quality of being organized, careful, and diligent. Conscientious people tend to make healthier choices. They choose the salad, not the cheeseburger. Rather than close the bar, they choose to go home so they can get up early to exercise. They choose stable friends and partners, excel at work, and “wear their seatbelts.”
“If there were a way to put “conscientiousness” into a pill, it would soon be dubbed the miracle drug, Zaraska writes. Even if you’re not “conscientious” now, it’s never too late to change. Start by organizing your sock drawer, Zaraska suggests. Take it up a notch by organizing your kitchen. When you have an important appointment in the morning, “set out your clothes the night before.” You can get started today with any of these 11 killer kitchen organization projects.
For more, here are 65 more ways to live a longer, healthier life.