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George Vaillant at TedEx
Vaillant: Love conquers all.

In 1938, researchers began tracking 268 Harvard undergrads with the intention of learning the keys to a long and happy life.

Seventy-five years and $20 million later, here’s what they found:

  • Have a happy childhood.
  • Don’t be a drunk.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Get married.

Oh, they unearthed a few other nuggets, like the fact that IQ above a certain point doesn’t translate into more income, guys who hated their mother tended to develop dementia, and liberal geezers had sex more often than their conservative counterparts. (You can check out a summary here.)

All of this simply confirms the results of dozens of other studies in recent years (except maybe the mom-hating/dementia thing, which makes me glad Mom and I always got along), but what’s interesting to me about the results is that, despite arguing that longevity depended more on behavior than genetic makeup, researchers did not highlight exercise or diet as key factors. “It’s good health that makes it possible for you to exercise at 60; it isn’t exercising at 60 that creates good health,” says George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Triumphs of Experience, a recent book based on the study.

The real key is loving relationships, Vaillant says. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that strong relationships can help you live longer. But I’ve yet to see research that shows that a great marriage will overcome the sort of life-shortening chronic illnesses that afflict aging couch potatoes these days. These are Harvard guys, though, so who knows?

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