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Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Can Personality Traits Help Us Live Longer?

Two personality attributes are common to people who live the longest lives. Can we use the Japanese concept of Ikigai to improve both our outlook and our longevity?

Everyone knows that plenty of exercise and healthy foods are beneficial to our well-being, but there may be other factors at play. Studies of people in “blue zones”- those areas of the world where people live longest – reveal personality hallmarks among the oldest inhabitants. 

In the blue zone country of Japan, a 2012 study found that a positive attitude toward life and willingness to express emotions were characteristics common to the vast majority of 250 centenarians, both as they saw themselves and as others considered them. 

Seniors and Longevity Personalities

You may wonder what older adults our age can learn that will improve our outlook. But recent studies show that seniors in their 60s and above have high emotional intelligence. We’re better at seeing the good that can come from stressful situations, and we empathize with people who are less fortunate. Of course, not all older adults have these skills, but your life experience gives you a good basis for acquiring them.  

Practicing Greater Emotional Expression

Therapists use a combination of techniques to help people talk about emotions. One is to begin by drawing how you feel, or finding a song that expresses your mood if words are difficult. When you do put feelings into words, try to use “I” statements, such as “I feel afraid.” If negative emotions are tough to let out, try embracing positive ones, such as “I feel happy.” 

Don’t chastise yourself for being fearful, sad, or upset. Instead, give a reason for your emotion. It might be “I’m sad that my daughter didn’t like the gift I chose for her” or “I’m nervous about giving my speech at the meeting.” You shouldn’t judge yourself for feeling a certain way. 

Finally, make it a habit to name and share your feelings with at least one person you feel close to. Ask that person how they feel, and why. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
The ability to express emotions and not keep them bottled up inside is something we can all work on. Therapy is a good place to learn better habits. A therapist can help us learn how to appropriately express anger, frustration, sadness, fear, and disappointment – all emotions that we may have been taught are somehow bad. We can also look online for techniques to better understand and release these emotions that we all experience.

Ikigai for Seniors

One way to bring these attributes into our lives is by considering the Japanese concept of ikigai. Literally a combination of the words for life, iki, and value or worth, gai, ikigai combines four areas of reflection to find your ideal purpose or reason for being. Not surprisingly, a strong sense of purpose is another feature common to blue zone inhabitants. 

The four aspects to ikigai comprise:
  • Passion – What you love doing
  • Mission – What matters in the world
  • Vocation – What you can be paid to do
  • Profession – What you’re already good at doing

Perhaps the monetary element doesn’t apply at this stage of your life. That’s okay. You can concentrate on the other three elements. Your ikigai may be mentoring your grandchildren, teaching knitting or woodworking to other community members, or leading a Boy Scout troop. Everyone’s ikigai is different, and it can change or be more than one thing.

You may find your ikigai online. It could be Zoom calls with a book group, sharing recipes with foodies or researching your ancestry. You may find a passion you didn’t know you had now that you have a little more time to yourself. Your ikigai may also be an offshoot of your professional identity, volunteering to help a small business grow or offering your services for free to underserved people. 

If the concept of ikigai intrigues you, there are books and workbooks available to expand your knowledge. Online materials include this ikigai questionnaire to help you discover how much ikigai you already have, and areas that may need some action. 

Most of us won’t live to be 100. But we can improve the quality of our lives and those around us by emulating the healthful traits of those who do.