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The Secret to Health, Happiness, and Longevity

IAn elderly couple hugging each other with love and happiness in a park with a large pond. Senior community concept, good health, longevityronically, the single best strategy for improving your own health, happiness, and even life expectancy is to stop thinking about yourself and start focusing on improving the well-being of others.
It’s truly mind-boggling to ponder the fact that each of us is a biological package of self-organizing chemicals. We take in energy (food), water, and oxygen from the environment; then our DNA and RNA send instructions to the ribosomes - little protein factories in our cells - that churn out a variety of very specific proteins which spontaneously fold into just the right shapes and then self-assemble into lipid bilayer cell membranes and innumerable other components that are used to make up cells, tissues, and organs. All these chemical reactions are self-orchestrated to interact and automatically create, maintain, and fine-tune you. As advanced as we are in modern science, we are just scratching the surface of understanding how intelligently designed and exquisitely adaptable living organisms are.
When you think about it this way, it’s astonishing that biologically we tend to hum along as well as we do - there are just so many opportunities for the wheels to come off. Yet each living species is a successful experiment as a good match for its niche environment. If we are to realize our full potential as a living organism, our environment, diet, social milieu, and activity patterns need to be similar to that in which we evolved, so as to enable all of those self-organizing processes to happen just right.
Of the countless species that have existed since the origin of life, almost 4 billion years ago, about 99.9% of those species are extinct today. Even the Homo sapiens species has been on the brink of extinction at times. One scientific model estimates that about 100,000 years ago the entire human population on Earth had contracted down to just 2,000 to 10,000 individuals. Regardless, through it all, your bloodline survived, and here you are today. You are not average; you never have been.
You come from a very long line of hardy survivors. If you could trace your lineage all the way back to the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), you would discover that over the last 3.7 billion years, each and every one of your direct blood relatives - child to parent to grandparent to great grandparent, etc. - endured long enough to reproduce and successfully nurture their offspring. It’s an unimaginably long, unbroken, winning streak of survival in the face of very long odds.
Toughness, creativity, and resourcefulness are programmed deeply into your genes, but you won’t manifest those virtues by following the path of least resistance and dwelling in your own comfortable and insular world. Tony Robbins says, “The path of least resistance will never make you proud.” You need a cause bigger than yourself, with goals beyond your own hedonistic pursuits if you want to really blossom.
Depending upon their environment, living organisms via epigenetic signaling will switch on or off whole segments of genes, which can drastically alter hormones, appetite, mood, immunity, body composition, and ultimately physical and mental health. Through similar epigenetic signaling mechanisms, being self-centered and always taking the easy way predictably leads to lethargy and weakness. When you demand less from your mind and body, your strength and mental sharpness will atrophy. In contrast, when you confront meaningful challenges and invest your energy in helping other life, epigenetic switches are turned on, which alters your genes to radically transform you into a stronger, more resilient, and resourceful version of yourself.
Some people wonder, “What’s the meaning of life?” Our planet Earth is a cosmic oasis in an otherwise cold, largely empty, and lifeless (except for us) universe. It’s a special privilege to be part of the wondrous spectacle of life on Earth. So, it seems to me, that one important meaning of life” is to do what we can to help keep the spark of life alive and well here on Earth. Could helping our neighbor help us to become better ourselves? Today more than ever with climate change, a global pandemic, and the possibility of another world war threatening our survival, we need to band together. Our lives should be centered around fostering positive relationships, acts of service, and preserving our planet. The more we focus on these fundamental pillars of life, the happier and healthier both the world and we will be. Obviously, nobody is going to solve any of these catastrophic problems on their own, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Mostly that means each of us must help make things better in our little corner of the world.
Do you want to know the secret to a long and happy life? In his superb book, The Courage to be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi writes:  Just like the traveler who relies on the North Star, in our lives we need a guiding star. That star is ‘contribution to others.’ As long as we do not lose sight of this compass, and keep on moving in this direction, there is happiness. No matter what moments you are living, or if there are people who dislike you, as long as you do not lose sight of the guiding star of ‘I contribute to others,’ you will not lose your way and you will have always companions by your side.”
Fostering Positive Relationships
The quality of our relationships and how happy and secure we are with the people we are closest to have a profound influence on our health and longevity. Put another way, relationships are our most important possessions in life—by far. The Harvard Adult Development Study enrolled 724 Boston men as teenagers in 1938 and followed them closely ever since. This landmark study found that having close long-term relationships, more than money or fame was the most important predictor of how happy the people were throughout their lives. Emotional ties protected people from trauma and stress, helped to delay age-related physical and mental decline, and were better predictors of long and happy lives than genes, education, income, or IQ. The protective effect of relationships proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and inner-city ales born into impoverished families. Dr Robert Waldinger, one of the directors of the Harvard study said, “Loneliness kills; it’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” In contrast, the participants who cultivated warm relationships enjoyed longer and happier lives, whereas the loners often died earlier. The bonds that we forge with our family, friends, neighbors, pets, and plants are like lifeboats that will save us when the inevitable storms of life ravage our worlds.
This means you need to get outside your own head and tend to the wellbeing of other life—and it doesn’t always have to be other humans. Adopting and caring for a dog does wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing. Devoted companionship, unconditional love, constant entertainment—for people for who have a canine housemate, it’s no mystery why dogs are man’s (and woman’s) best friend.
Recently, dog ownership’s effect on human survival was assessed in a definitive meta-analysis of 10 studies that included about 4 million participants. People who lived with a dog were 24% less likely to die during the 10-year study compared to people who didn’t have a dog companion. Dog ownership conferred an even greater 31% risk reduction in cardiovascular death. These health and longevity benefits of sharing one’s home with a dog were especially pronounced for people who lived alone.
Life in its wisdom channels energy to organisms that are contributing to the common good, whereas life force tends to be shunted away from isolated organisms that are not being collaborative with other life around them. Because life is intricately interconnected, to be fully participating in the phenomenon of life you need to be investing much of your time and energy into the well-being of living things around you. I think of my grandmothers Alice and Dorothy and my mother Leatrice, who dedicated their lives to their family, friends, and communities. They were happy, active, social people who lived into their 90s; Dorothy made it to 103. How many grouchy, anti-social, mean-spirited hermits do you know who are healthy and living with vitality into their 90s?
My mother’s mantra when I was growing up was, “Go outside and play with your friends.” As a teenager I had a long list of phone numbers memorized and was constantly calling my buddies to get a game together. Since med school, I’ve always continued to exercise a lot, but I neglected my playtime. Just in the last couple of years, I’ve gotten back into playing, so I’m up to my old antics of frequently nagging my pals to join in on a game of pickleball, badminton, and even pool—it makes me feel like a kid again. Mammals invented play 100 million years ago, to hone physical skills while frolicking with their littermates. Play helped them develop fitness that improved their chances of surviving future threats in the real world. Importantly, playing also helped them forge bonds with their pack, reduce stress, and boost mood.
There’s still nothing quite as therapeutic as a play. Peter Schnohr and Jacob Marott, my friends/colleagues from Copenhagen, Denmark, and I recently published studies showing that the exercises that best improve life expectancy are those that involve physical interactive play, like tennis, badminton, volleyball, golf, basketball, softball, and soccer. Play is a collaborative endeavor - everyone in the game benefits and usually comes away with warm feelings about their playfellows. Play is also a way to engage our competitiveness in a fun and harmless manner. These days I play pickleball at least twice a week; we laugh, hoot, and kiddingly harass each other for 90 minutes. I have come to believe that play is one of life’s essential ingredients - let’s call it vitamin P. Doctor’s orders, get your vitamin P at least twice a week.
Acts of Service
Even for the most introverted, we need to connect to other life to prosper. We’re like the ants that way. Investing time and energy into helping our family and/or colony survive is what we are genetically programmed to do. We also have a strong inclination for altruism that not only makes us feel good when we help others, it also improves our health and longevity.
A study that closely tracked 10,000 people in Wisconsin for over 40 years found that people who volunteered reduced their risk of dying during the study by over half.
Jimmy Carter, at age 97, is the United States’ longest-lived president. About 42 years ago he retired from his work as “leader of the free world”, but he’s been passionately involved in volunteer work ever since and is still going strong. Even in his 90s, Carter continues fighting for human rights, resolving international conflicts, promoting democracy, leading clean water initiatives, assisting hurricane victims, and personally building homes with Habitat for Humanity.
A recent Harvard of 13,000 adults reported that people who volunteer for even two hours/week have a longer life expectancy, fewer physical impairments, and a stronger sense of well-being. According to Dr. Eric Kim the study’s lead author, “Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others. Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death.”
The take-home message is the same one my wife Joan has been telling me and the kids for decades: “It’s not all about you.” The more we can keep this in mind, the better our lives will be.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD, FACC