The science of extending life is moving at an astounding pace. Research on topics ranging from organ regeneration to gene sequencing to molecular manipulation is altering our understanding of lifespan. Just this year, scientists “rejuvenated” the blood of the oldest living lab rat, enabling it to live longer than ever thought possible. What’s more, clinical trials are demonstrating results not just with animals, but with humans.
This is all great news if you’re an investor in Silicon Valley and/or someone who wants to live forever. (Cue the late, great Irene Cara, singing “I want to live Forever” in the title song of the musical, Fame.) Many of us are much more concerned with living the best life we can in the here and now, however, rather than living to 150. What does the research say about that?
A lot actually. But the innovation required to live a happy life is actually quite old-school. The longest-running longitudinal study on happiness has found time and again that “social fitness” is the key to happiness in life. This Harvard study traced the lives of 724 participants from all over the world and asked detailed questions about their lives at two-year intervals. The single most important trait of happy and well elders over the past 80-odd years the study has run has been healthy relationships, whether partners, friends and/or family. It gets better: people with strong relationships also lived longer.
So how do we get there, too? On an individual level, there’s also a lot you can do to extend and deepen your social ties. Take work. Many people are opting to “unretire.” A 2017 study published by Cambridge University Press revealed that about 25% of British retirees return to the workforce, half of them doing so within five years of officially retiring. A similar survey from the Rand Corporation showed that more than half of American workers 50 or older who were polled reported they would come out of retirement for a good opportunity. Moreover, these same people were looking for “meaningful work,” not just money.
Don’t know what you want to do? Lucky you! A growing number of university programmes at places like Stanford and Oxford have sprung up in the last few years aimed at helping people to identify their purpose in later life. Even if you don’t want to work, there’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that volunteering is good for your physical and mental health, particularly as you age. Intergenerational volunteer work – that which has people working with people considerably younger (or older) than them – has shown to be particularly valuable for enhancing well-being.
Personally? I’m a big fan of clubs as a way to get out there and meet people. As adults, we sometimes feel that hobbies are for kids: you learn to shoot a bow and arrow. Maybe you take some piano lessons or do an art class here and there. And you have fun. But once you grow up, that’s when the serious stuff kicks in: work…family…LIFE.
That’s a huge mistake. Because there’s something exhilarating about taking up something entirely new – or perhaps returning to an earlier interest – when you’re grown up. Perhaps you even take a class and discovered other like-minded souls. I did this with an acting class last Spring. It’s just…fun. And it keeps you feeling alive.
None of which is to say that governments and other stakeholders in the ageing conversation can’t also play a vital role in fostering togetherness. I was quite taken with a recent article in Bloomberg’s CityLab about the “15-Minute City.” Most of us think about the “15-Minute City” in terms of its environmental impact. It’s a place where all the amenities you need—coffee, groceries, the gym—are located within a 15-minute walk of your home, so you don’t need a car. But new research flagged up in the Bloomberg article also suggests that the 15-Minute City fosters friendship and wards off loneliness. These are precisely the sorts of things associated with an unhappy life and an early death in the Harvard study.
Which is also why the National Innovation Centre for Ageing have launched their City of Longevity project: to change the way older people engage with one another in communities and shared spaces. This dynamic, evidence-based, open-source framework helps cities design and deliver practical actions to help residents and tourists live longer, healthier lives. Urban planners, take note!
I’m afraid I need to leave now because my improv class is about to start. See you at the grocery store!