Today, December 30, would have been my father’s 111th birthday. He made it only to #53, and every year I ponder what he and I would have become together and individually had he lived longer.
My mother, who died a year ago, almost made it to 100. She was eighteen months shy of that millennial milestone.
Their birthdays, yahrzeits, Yizkor, and other significant family events always raise for me the questions “What if…?” and “How do those who live to 100 do it?”
Here are eight responses by people who’ve reached 100 to the question “Why have you lived so long?”
“Eat boiled corn with codfish and cream, and laugh…”
“Smoke a good cigar, avoid alcohol, drink water, stay positive, and sing.”
“Thumb your nose at sadness, turn the tables on tragedy, laugh instead of getting angry, and don’t feel envious of anyone.”
“Find a good wife and drink two scotches every night.”
“Fight injustice, help people in trouble, and keep your mind active.”
“Do something new each day, avoid drama and stay far away from difficult people.”
“Mind your own business, don’t eat junk food, treat others well, and work hard at what you love.”
“Live for God, pray, and surround yourself with nice people.”
So… there you have it – but, not so fast, because even if we do everything right – i.e. eat well, exercise, manage stress, maintain social connections, and live with faith – there’s no guarantee of anything.
After all, some of us are more prone to disease, accident, and rotten luck than others.
Longevity researchers say that both genetic factors and behavioral factors contribute to longevity. These include health and health behaviors, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, stress, social and environmental support, mental health, and life satisfaction.
Perhaps the most important study on longevity is “The Longevity Project” written by psychology professors Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin of UC Riverside. They culminated an eight-decade-long study, begun in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, of 1500 precocious children. Terman died in 1956 so future researchers picked up where he left off, including Drs. Friedman and Martin. (see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/science/19longevity.html)
The 1500 children were followed in meticulous detail throughout their lives. In studying them Drs. Friedman and Martin conclude:
“The best childhood predictor of longevity [is] conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree….It’s not the happy-go-lucky who thrive—it’s the prudent and persistent who flourish through the years.…conscientious people do more … to protect their health and engage in fewer [risky] activities …. are less likely to smoke or drive too fast. They buckle their seat belts and follow the doctor’s advice…They are not necessarily risk averse but they tend to be sensible in evaluating how far to push the envelope. [some are]…biologically predisposed to be …more conscientious and healthier ….less prone to develop certain diseases, … these people have different levels of the chemical…serotonin in their brains [serotonin helps to determine happiness and well-being]…Individuals with low levels of serotonin tend to be much more impulsive… and they eat more and sleep less… Having a conscientious personality leads a person into healthier situations and relationships… happier marriages, better friendships and healthier work situations.”
This study showed that kids described as cheerful and optimistic didn’t live as long as those boring and serious kids (i.e. nerds!?) who worried constantly about school, studied and worked hard.
The one factor that best predicted long life, even more than happiness itself, is purposeful goal-oriented work, whether for a paycheck or for its own sake. People drawn to live their lives with other like-minded, healthy, active, and involved people significantly increase the odds of their living longer and more happily.
Judaism emphasizes that it’s not the number of days or years that we live, it’s the quality of those days that matters and that is the surest way to wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
In this New Year 2017, there’s much about which to be thankful and much cause for worry – e.g. Israel’s security, its isolation and the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; epic changes the Trump administration promises; the well-being of our children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, community, nation, people, the world, and the environment.
We cannot know what’s going to occur in the year to come. However, we can control how we ourselves cope – that is our challenge going forward.
I hope that each of us will be blessed with good health, length of years and the knowledge that did all we could to live our lives ethically, compassionately, patiently, and with love.
Note: This is a blog I posted initially on December 27, 2013 with updates.
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