But it turns out that is wrong. In fact, cheerful people are less likely, on average, to live to a ripe old age than people who tend to be more serious. Why? Because happy-go-lucky people are prone to "illusory optimism" -- they underestimate health risks and don't follow medical advice. These people are less likely to wear their seat belts, for example, and they also tend to drink, smoke, and party hard.
I was actually reading a story about life insurance when I stumbled on a reference to this longevity study, started at Stanford University in the 1920s and completed last year by two University of California researchers, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. The results were published in a book called The Longevity Project. They have also developed a consulting firm, Longevity Insight, which specializes in "informational products with a focus on longevity."
It may come as no surprise to discover that successful, wealthy people live longer. Part of the reason is access to top-notch medical care, a better diet and healthier lifestyles in general. But the other part of the equation is that success did not necessarily bring on overwork and more stress. Instead, those who lived a long time tended to work hard and strive to overcome obstacles. Apparently, striving to accomplish a goal, achieving success, and then setting new goals, are characteristics of people who tend to live long, healthful lives.
Marital state did not necessarily help people live long, productive lives. A happy marriage was found to produce healthy side effects for men. But not necessarily for women. A bad marriage raised health complications for both genders. But it was women who were more likely to stay healthy after a divorce, as they found it easier to turn to friends and family for social support. Men who got divorced, and did not remarry, were at high risk for premature death.
The researchers confirmed that people who go to church tend to be healthier than those who don't. But the benefits derived primarily from the increased social interactions people enjoyed at church, not from the religious experience itself. So presumably any other regular social engagement would be just as beneficial.
Kids who started formal schooling at an early age typically had health problems later in life. But many kids who suffered a childhood trauma -- the divorce of their parents, for example -- were able to bounce back and, perhaps because of the resilience they developed, lived to a ripe old age.
It turns out that your personal habits and your whole attitude toward life do affect your longevity. Just not in axactly the way we thought.
So eat your broccoli. That can't hurt. But it's more important to be conscientious about your life, set some goals for yourself and work to achieve them; make it a point to build a happy, positive intimate relationship, and a good, supportive group of more casual friends.
Oh yeah . . . and be sure to get your flu shot this fall.