Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bliss vs. longevity

This past week, Philadelphia public radio's resident pyschologist Dan Gottlieb discussed the implications of "new research" that purportedly shows that "self-compassion" (silencing your inner critic) improves weight loss, health and general well-being. 

The research itself may be new, but not its conclusions. For decades we've been hearing bromides about the virtues of promoting self-esteem, and of slowing down, de-stressing, smelling the roses, and thinking good thoughts. We have seen this attitude permeate our schools, reaching even our math classes, whose top priorities now include the prevention of math anxiety. Don't worry about hard problems: there's no one right answer or one best way to do math; as long as you try, you'll get partial credit; and we'll make sure there aren't any truly hard problems anyway. And don't concern yourself with math nerds: they might look like they're good at math, but what they are good at, if anything, is mere calculation. 

How refreshing, then, to find, just one day after Philadephia public radio's "Self-Compassion" segment, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Longevity: Revenge of the female nerds." In it, reporter Julia Baird discusses the new book The Longevity Project (by psychologists Stanford Friedman and Leslie Martin), which analyzes the results on a study that tracked, in detail, the lives of 1,528 Californians since 1921.

As Baird puts it:
The results are startling because so many of the platitudes we use to soothe and inspire each other are terrible advice if we want to live a long life: Don't worry, don't work so hard, live a little, think sunny thoughts. Friedman and Martin find that cheerful people are likely to die younger, that hard work, stress, and worry are good for you (though you must manage them), and that eating raw vegetables, going to the gym, and attending church are good practices - but will not seriously affect the number of years you will live.
Those who live long and prosper are decidedly Spock-like:
The prudent, dependable, persistent, thrifty, and organized will die well after their peers. They are less likely to be depressed, anxious, smoke, have diabetes or tuberculosis, or suffer strokes. They also tend to find better marriages and jobs.
Female Spocks, of course, live especially long, whence this article's title.

Naturally, some might argue that, these other virtues aside, longevity isn't everything. Here's H. L. Menckin, cited at the beginning of this article:
Men have a better time of it than women. For one thing, they marry later. For another thing, they die earlier.

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