5 Psychological Traits The Healthiest People Have in Common
Most of the research done on aging – and the steps we can take to slow or reverse its effects – has focused on physical, tangible measures like genetic differences between healthy and unhealthy populations, and the ways in which living healthfully through regular physical activity can actually alter our genetic expression. There’s great appeal to focusing consumers’ attention on things that can be purchased and physically experienced – buy this, eat that, do three sets of these – as it provides the sense that health is one item, or one plank, away.
While healthy people share many of the same physical characteristics – healthy diet, frequent exercise, sufficient sleep – they also share many of the same mental and emotional characteristics. A recent study examined the personality traits among several hundred citizens over the age of 90 living in remote Italian villages nestled near the Mediterranean Sea. Researchers have identified common psychological traits in members of this group that have contributed to their longevity, all of which can be strengthened and cultivated within each of us, no matter our age or where we live.
Successful people maintain a positive focus in life no matter what is going on around them – or at least can bring themselves back to positivity quickly after straying off course. They focus more of their attention on how their past successes can guide them, rather than how their past failures can derail them. They focus on the actionable steps they must take to get them closer to accomplishing goals, rather than on all the distractions and obstacles that life presents to them. While some people are simply predisposed to greater levels of optimism than others, rest assured that optimistic people don’t necessarily experience greater amounts of positive life events – they just do a better job of interpreting the events in their lives in more optimistic ways. To start, try flipping your “positive switch” in any given moment and see if you can spot the positives: the picturesque snow-covered trees on your morning drive to work, a warm smile by a fellow jogger crossing paths, a loving interaction between your children, an accomplished task at the office or a gain in strength at the gym. They exist; it’s just a matter of lifting our head and opening our attention to them amid life’s disruptions.
- Strong work ethic and strong bond with land
Positive Psychology pioneer Martin Seligman’s conclusion is that happiness has several dimensions that can be cultivated, the final stage being what he calls the Meaningful Life, in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by “employing our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves.” While busyness is often synonymous with heavy work hours, crippling anxiety, and a slew of mental health problems, being busy with meaningful tasks –surrounding yourself with projects both personal and professional that are engaging and exciting – has wonderful psychological and physiologic benefits. Our work ethic is naturally strong when doing something that’s appealing and challenging – that is, whose accomplishment requires full concentration and high effort. Consider how satisfied – albeit tired – you feel after a long but productive day at the office, or how much you look forward to particular exercises at the gym even though they’re immensely difficult.
We often associate this quality with the aging grandma who refuses to give up driving, despite her oblivious recklessness behind the wheel – or the spouse who constantly locks himself out of the house yet still chooses not to put a spare key underneath the mat in the garage – to which the rest of us throw our hands up in exasperation and lament, “They just don’t change! How frustrating!” Although a determination to stay the course and a refusal to change our attitude about something despite what others might say can also be classified in positive, more gritty and resilient, terms. The athlete who made the varsity team – the same one who got cut from the team each of the last two years but refused to give up – is remarkably stubborn. So is the runner who insists on the same trail run each morning in snow and rain and heat and gloom of night. “She just doesn’t change! How inspiring!”
- Strong bond with family
As a species wired for social connectedness, we inherently know how important it is to live a life with sustained intimate relationships. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the director of the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, at which he’s spearheading a study on adult happiness that has tracked hundreds of American men for over 75 years. In his TED talk outlining the findings, his main conclusion, beautiful in its simplicity, demonstrated just that: form good relationships and you’ll be alright, as the depth of our connections is one of the major indicators of personal happiness.
- Great decision –making skills without caring what others think
As a social species, we’re also powerfully invested in others’ perceptions and judgments of us and the decisions we make. Many of us are hampered to make even the most trivial decisions – choosing a restaurant for a social gathering, buying a new shirt – because of a fear of what others might think. To be a great decision maker doesn’t necessarily mean always making the “right” decisions, but rather being fully committed to the ones that make you happy. Imagine the freedom it would create within you to unapologetically decide to wear the outfit to the gym that makes you feel most comfortable, regardless of its fashion rating, or spend time with the people that make you feel most comfortable, regardless of their popularity. The words showered upon preschoolers are just as true, and certainly more difficult, for we mature folk to follow: be true to yourself.