I spoke at Exceedance 2014 about how the traditional view of longevity focuses only on what makes us frail and what is wrong with us. My view is that longevity is equally influenced by how resilient we are: the intellectual, psychological, and social traits that make us resilient—what is right with us.
“Strength and resilience of the human spirit” is more than just an inspiring idea. Our human resilience is rooted in science.
It Pays to Stay Positive
Positive psychology is the study of human flourishing. It focuses on personal traits such as well-being and happiness rather than on problems. Since Martin Seligman pioneered the concept of positive psychology just 16 years ago, researchers have demonstrated that positive characteristics or feelings and purpose in life help people live longer. Positive feelings are especially beneficial for longevity, and it is hardly surprising that will-to-live is a strong predictor of survival among older people.
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
In addition to a positive attitude, preservation of cognitive functioning is critical to successful aging. The rapid loss of cognitive faculties often signifies medical decline and heightened mortality risk.
Many cognitively demanding activities influence longevity, and active mental stimulation is important for maintaining cognitive functioning. We’ve all heard stories about spouses dying within months of each other; many studies have demonstrated the destructive consequences of social isolation and the high value of a regular schedule of social engagement for sustaining brain health. The mortality of any older individual is contingent to some extent on the survival of at least one peer.
In fact, one of the most remarkable stories about the cognitive, psychological, and social traits of resilience are personified by a single remarkable individual with an enduring will to live: the longest-living Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who lived to the age of 110 and was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.
After surviving the Holocaust, Herz-Sommer continued to suffer numerous setbacks, including cancer at the age of 83. However, she was resilient enough to rebound. Motivated by her love of music and life, and supported by her friends, she was buoyed up by irrepressible optimism. That optimism, she believed, was the secret of her great longevity.
Stories like this show us that human longevity is not just about pathology and frailty. Longevity is also about advancing purposefully through life.
Although we tend to focus on building societal resilience through a deep understanding of risks and uncertainties, when it comes to longevity, we need to focus less on the risks, and more on the positive psychological and social factors that promote purposeful human advancement through life. To better understand longevity and its impacts on society as a whole, we must recognize human resilience.