How to add life to your years

Mae West famously suggested that it’s not the ‘men in your life’ you need to worry about so much as ‘the life in your men; and as the celebration of another birthday reminds me that more of my life is behind than in front of me, I feel I’d be wise to focus on ‘the life left in my years’ rather than the ‘years left in my life’. And so, I turn to George Valliant for advice.


Valliant has been a key researcher in the Study of Adult Development. This study has tracked 100s of white, American college men since the 1940s, and a similar group of Inner-city men (i.e. different class, culture etc.) tracked since they were school children in the 1950s. Reporting research conducted when the men were in their 70s or 80s, he asks, ‘What predicts a good quality of life, as subjectively and objectively defined, at that age?’


Factors that don’t predict good quality of later life

Interestingly Valliant identifies six factors that, contrary to popular belief, are NOT shown by this study to have any impact of the chances of being classified as Happy-Well at 70 or 80, rather as than Sad-Sick, Prematurely Dead (died after age 50 but before general life expectancy) or Intermediate (neither definitely Happy-well nor definitely Sad-sick, but still definitely alive!). 


·     Ancestral Longevity

·     Cholesterol

·     Parental Social Class

·     Warm Childhood Environment

·     Stable Childhood Temperament

·     Stress


Since these are things we have little control over, their lack of influence on the quality of our old age is good news. Also good news is the fact that the factors that do make a difference are within our control. The less good news (for those of us who are older already) is that these predictive factors need to be in place by age 50 to affect quality of life 30 years later.


Factors that do predict good quality of later life

The factors that are shown to positively predict Happy-Well status at 70 or 80 are:

·     Not smoking or stopping young (best to stop before 45)

·     Mature defences adaptive Coping style. This essentially means you use on ‘all about the other’ coping mechanisms such as altruism, sublimation, suppression or stoicism, and humour, rather than ‘all about me’ mechanisms such as passive aggression, dissociation, projections, fantasy, or acting out, when coping with adversity. Or, as Valliant says, to put it another way you are good at turning lemons into lemonade and not turning molehills into mountains when dealing with the slings and arrows of life.

·     Absence of Alcohol Abuse – e.g. alcohol not causing multiple problems with family, law or life.

·     Healthy Weight – BMI between 22-28

·     Stable marriage – without divorce, separation or serious problems 

·     Exercise. - that burns more that 500 Kilocalories per week, regularly


·     Many years of education - Interestingly this isn’t about the correlation with social class so much as an apparent association with increased self-care, future orientation and perseverance.


Of the first six, at least four need to be present at 50 to reap the benefits 20 to 30 years later.


Unfortunately, we are all subject to the whims of bad luck: being stuck by lightening, injured by the stupidity of others, crippled in an accident, or derailed by malignant genes. So, no guarantees. 


This is undoubtedly a terrific and valuable study, the question for many of us, of course, is how generalisable it is across gender and ethnicity, culture and class? Even so, for now I’ll gamble that it is and be cautiously optimistic that there will be ‘life in my years’ yet.


Most of this is taken from George Valliant’s chapter on Positive Ageing in Positive Psychology in Practice (Joseph, 2015 2ndedition)