By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
As I was preparing to write this article, I Googled “how to be a healthy and happy man.” I got 8.8 million results. I couldn’t believe it!
Obviously there’s no shortage of advice on the topic. Many of the articles I browsed, though, failed to give much attention to an aspect of health that’s close to my heart—and one that Harvard University has spent more than 75 years demonstrating to be true.
Harvard Grant Study Identifies Predictors of Healthy Aging
In 1938, researchers at the school launched what may be the longest longitudinal study of human development ever conducted, the Harvard Grant Study. They chose 268 undergraduate men to follow throughout their lives, with a goal of learning which factors were most important to the experiences of success and happiness.
Dr. George Vaillant, a psychology professor and the study’s director for more than 30 years, published some of the findings in a book called Triumphs of Experience (Harvard University Press) in 2012. They include:
- Recovery from a bad childhood is possible, but memories of a happy childhood provide a lifelong source of strength.
- Marriage brings much more contentment after age 70.
- Signs of physical aging after age 80 have less to do with heredity than with habits developed before age 50.
- There was no significant difference in maximum income earned by men with IQs in the 110–115 range compared to men with IQs over 150. An average IQ, as determined by testing, is 100.
- The “warmth” of relationships exerts a powerful influence on health and success in later years. The 58 men with the highest scores on measurements of warm relationships, for example, earned an average of $141,000 more, annually, during the peak income years (between the ages of 55 and 60) than the 31 men with the lowest scores. At the time of the book’s publication, more than one-third of the first group was still living, while only four of the latter group were still alive.
- A positive boyhood relationship with one’s mother was associated with effectiveness at work, high income, continuing to work until age 70, and mental competence at age 80. By comparison, a poor relationship was associated with dementia.
- A warm relationship with a father contributes to a man’s capacity to play, enjoy vacations, use of humor as a coping mechanism, and better adjust to retirement. Conversely, men with poor relationships with their fathers were much more likely to describe themselves as pessimists, to not let others form close emotional ties with them, and to report low life satisfaction at age 75. (These variables were not influenced by men’s relationships with their mothers.)
- Men who experienced poor fathering—but not poor mothering—were significantly more likely to have unhappy marriages.
- “The cruelest aspect of a bleak childhood was its correlation with friendlessness at the end of life,” said Dr. Vaillant. Cherished individuals were five times more likely to be rich in friendships and other social supports at age 70 than those who were “loveless, who often trusted neither the universe nor their emotions, and remained essentially friendless for much of their lives.”
Summing up the study, Dr. Vaillant said the 75 years and $20 million invested in the project point to a simple conclusion: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
The Unique Connection Between Mind, Body, and Heart
Dr. Vaillant’s insights reinforce what I’ve seen over decades as a cardiologist and in my own study to become a bioenergetic analyst. From childhood, our bodies store our emotions and our health reflects them back to us. (This applies to women as well as men, by the way.)
The heart and cardiovascular system are particularly strong mirrors. Just think about some of the ways we describe our feeling nature:
- Soft-hearted or hard-hearted
- Wild at heart
- Wears their heart on their sleeve
- Scared to death (implying cardiac arrest due to fear)
We instinctively know this mind-body connection to be true; the Harvard study proves it, showing how crucial strong, supportive emotional connections are to long-term well-being. When those connections are damaged or lost, our health—particularly our heart health—suffers. I call this “heartbreak,” both literally and figuratively.
Internalized Emotion May Be as Risky as Smoking
While I can’t cite a study that bears out this assertion, I can tell you story after story about patients who developed heart disease despite having no obvious risk factors for it. Consider the story of Lazlo, who I wrote about in Heartbreak and Heart Disease.
Lazlo was 55 years old when he first visited my office. He had developed heart disease in his 40s and underwent triple bypass surgery at age 50. While talking, a portrait of my great-grandfather that hung on my wall caught his eye. My great-grandfather, he said, resembled his own father, who had been taken from his family during World War II, when Lazlo was a young boy.
As Lazlo told me his story, I noticed his breathing was shallow, his chest rigid, and his shoulders rounded. The contour of his chest muscles made him appear as if he were wearing a heavily armored chest plate. These traits are common of cardiac patients who suffer heartbreak in childhood. The posture and breathing pattern that Lazlo unconsciously adopted to protect himself from those emotions had for decades caused their own very real stress to Lazlo’s heart, nearly killing him.
Making the Mind-Body Connection Work for You
One of life’s difficult truths is that you cannot avoid some amount of pain, grief, and heartbreak. But you can protect yourself from their effects by nurturing the relationships that are important to you and by being true to your innermost self.
If you hurt, cry.
If you’re angry, acknowledge it and own it (too many of us deny we are angry at all).
If you care about someone, let them know.
If you don’t want to do something, politely say no.
Whatever your emotions, feel them and respect them; don’t ignore them. They are steering you toward greater health and happiness.
- ST Sinatra. Heartbreak and Heart Disease. (Keats Publishing, 1996)
- Vaillant GE. Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (Belknap Press, 2012)
- Wikipedia. IQ Classification.
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