Up the Valley: Happy Thoughts

December 13, 2012

Being optimistic and easygoing may help you live longer, but is it worth it? Today’s column in the Star…

I was recently referred to a physician for advice on a lingering health problem. During the initial consultation, I discovered that this intelligent Stanford-trained specialist had the personality of an irate New York cabdriver and a bedside manner perfectly suited for a career interacting with laboratory animals in a 100 percent humanity-free research setting.

Because my late father fit this precise description, I found the doctor’s irascibility both uncomfortably familiar and strangely reassuring, which may explain my preference for female doctors and my perpetually unmarried status.

After instantly diagnosing me — as his colleagues had previously done — with whichever malady happened to be within his own medical specialty, he ordered some expensive tests, insulted me a few times as a deposit on future interactions, and — while I sat listening helplessly — began dictating his notes into a machine.

“Patient is a pleasant, middle-aged, post-menopausal unmarried female who is experiencing [a list of symptoms] … and who has recently gained weight and is receiving insufficient exercise,” he permanently recorded for posterity. He continued describing our consultation in detail, touching on my failings as a patient and as a human being, and then — because this first version was for the referring doctor — he drew in his breath and started again.

“Patient is a pleasant, middle-aged, post-menopausal unmarried female …” he repeated for my primary care physician, and “Patient is a pleasant, middle-aged, post-menopausal unmarried female …” he dictated once more, for the file. By the third go-round, I felt myself slipping further into middle age while becoming considerably less pleasant, suspecting that long-dormant symptoms of menopause might shortly be resurfacing.

Inhaling deeply, I tried to remain calm. I was on a “happy thoughts” kick at the time, having recently read about a study suggesting that the secret to longevity lies in maintaining certain positive happy-go-lucky personality traits, which I was determined to adopt — or die trying.

A group of researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Yeshiva University had closely studied 500 Ashkenazi Jews over the age of 95, and 700 of their genetically homogeneous offspring. They found that people who live longest tend to be outgoing, optimistic and easygoing, also enjoying laughter, strong social networks and active engagement in activities.

This result, surprisingly, surprised researchers. “When I started working with centenarians, I thought we’d find that they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery,” explained Nir Barzilai, M.D., a co-author of the study. Still, Dr. Barzilai admitted: “Some evidence indicates that personality can change between the ages of 70 and 100, so we don’t know whether our centenarians have maintained their personality traits across their entire lifespans.”

In other words, researchers could not determine whether centenarians were always positively peppy or whether this peppiness suddenly struck them in later life, like baldness, forgetfulness or an appetite for dinner at 4 p.m.

This could mean, for centenary-aspiring curmudgeons, that it is not too late to aggressively emulate outgoing, optimistic and easygoing personalities.

Unfortunately, effecting this transformation is even more exhausting than it sounds. Sure, you may greet each sunrise with a happy smile — determined to remain sanguine until sunset — yet you’ll inevitably encounter a Starbucks cashier who repeatedly calls you “ma’am” or “dear,” or a Safeway clerk who calls out the obvious non-necessity of checking your identification for alcohol purchases. Or you’ll receive a telephone call from your mother the day before each holiday complaining in advance about a telephone call to her you may or may not make the following day.

Which ultimately begs the question: Do I really want to live longer if I have to be outgoing, optimistic and easygoing, or will it just feel like I’ve lived forever? Do I honestly aspire to be one of those giddy older people featured in commercials thanking their children for letting them live independently (aka alone), armed with electronic devices to summon strangers for help should they accidentally topple over?

Having no such children, I have long anticipated my dotage, when I can unleash my aggressions and leave tact on the bedside table alongside my teeth. I look forward to admonishing grown men to start dressing like adults and grown women to stop dressing like teenagers. I envision a rosy pink, Pepto-Bismol-filled future shoving my way through shopping malls on a scooter and exasperating airport security guards by accusing them of “getting fresh” as I shuffle sluggishly through metal detectors.

It’s not that I would mind being a lovable old lady of the easygoing variety, but I fear this might be unachievable without the prolonged administration of appropriate mood-altering medications in significant doses.

And for that, I’d have to consult another specialist.