Happy people live longer, just ask a 104-year-old

Dorothy "Dot" Moore, 104, still looks forward to her future.

This story is a finalist for the 2011 Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the series Aging in Vancouver on UBC’s TheThunderbird.ca 

Dorothy Moore may have tapped into a key ingredient to longevity, she just doesn’t know it.

“I couldn’t tell you what happened!” the 104-year-old said, laughing as she considered how to explain her age. “I’ve had a really good life in every way.”

Dot, as she prefers to be called, chooses to reflect on the positive, rather than the negative in her life. She could say that she has been twice-widowed and recently lost her daughter-in-law.

But she doesn’t.

“I think it’s an awful waste of time to be complaining,” Dot said, shaking her head in disapproval. “It really is. That’s all I can say.”

Instead, the centenarian smiles when she thinks back. In fact, she is nearly always smiling.

“I’m very, very lucky,” Dot repeated during multiple visits. “It’s all really a lovely story.”

And it’s this positive outlook that some psychologists believe may have contributed to Dot’s vitality. Subjective well-being – that is, optimism, life satisfaction, resilience, adaptability, positive emotions, and related traits – is increasingly understood to have a positive influence on health. Recent studies show these same traits could also affect longevity.

"I think it's lovely to love people." - Dot Moore

“Happy people live longer,” concluded psychologist Dr. Ed Diener in his latest article by the same title, published in the March issue of Applied Psychology. Dr. Diener has written extensively on happiness research. In his recent article, he reviewed over 160 published studies that, together, provide “clear and compelling” evidence people with a positive attitude can live longer than those without, all things considered.

“The mechanism by which that happens is not well understood,” Dr. Norm O’Rourke, a clinical psychologist in SFU’s gerontology department, said. “We have to figure out the why’s and how’s of that association.”

Although Dot recently began using a walker and is slowly losing some of her hearing and memory, her friends and family say that she is the same optimistic woman she always was.

Despite that good genetics are “two-thirds of the equation,” Dr. O’Rourke said, it seems Dot also had the necessary temperament to aid her long-term aging.

Hear her voice:  Dot’s wisdom on using time wisely.

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”

When Dot’s first husband passed away, she wouldn’t allow their daughter Wendy, then in her early 20s, to be self-pitying or to move back in with her.

“She said ‘no daughter of mine is going to be an old maid’,” Wendy Lindmeier, 73, recalled. Dot told her “you’ve got to be with your friends and I’ve got to be with mine.”

After Dot’s second husband died 39 years later, “she had her grieving period,” Lindmeier said, “but … taught us that death is a part of life.”

Dot’s future-focused outlook demonstrates a healthy level of resiliency, Dr. O’Rourke said. Widows who move on effectively after the loss of their partners “are those who continue to look forward.”

"Dot's outside looks like her inside - beautiful," a friend said.

But Dot has not only accepted change, he pointed out, she has also asserted a level of control over her life and her happiness.

And she has done so throughout her life.

Dot lived independently until she was 102, a fact that amazes gerontologists like O’Rourke.

What is even more remarkable: her decision two years ago to move into an assisted care unit. She didn’t need coercing. In much the same way, Dot decided in her 80s that it was time to stop driving.

At 96, she jumped at an invitation to take a spin on a friend’s motorcycle. “Mother’s favourite expression was ‘I don’t want to go to the grave wondering!’,” Lindmeier explained.

And at 98, Dot decided she didn’t want to continue volunteering at the local seniors’ centre. “She said to me once ‘I can’t do it anymore’,” Lindmeier recalled. “She said ‘I’m so tired of these seniors complaining all the time, so many of them are so fortunate … it just pulls me down’.”

It takes someone who feels really confident about themselves and their life circumstances to make a choice like that, Dr. O’Rourke said.

In a phenomenon known as downward social comparison, Dr. O’Rourke explained, “some people actually seek out others who are doing worse than they are to feel better about themselves … It’s interesting, this is kind of the opposite.”

Wendy visits with her mother at least four times a week.

In many ways, Dot has demonstrated an empowering sense of self-efficacy, he pointed out. The SFU professor has not met Dorothy Moore, but from his understanding of her, some of her decisiveness represents a healthy way of “managing her world.”

And it’s this command over her happiness that seems to be particularly unique – an approach to life that she passed on to her children.

When her daughter was in her late 20s and living in California, Dot would send her letters and cards of positive affirmations.

“Just little things, little quotes, and I do the same for my daughter,” Lindmeier said. “She loved Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“Mother used to say ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,’ Lindmeier said. “And she really believes that, and I do too.”

Still more time for fun

It’s still unclear to psychologists exactly how positive mental states affect the body physiologically.

Understanding the physical mechanisms at work is very complicated, Dr. O’Rourke said.

Yet, evidence that a positive outlook influences not only health, but longevity, continues to mount.

In his recent article Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity, Dr. Diener concludes that “happiness” predicts longevity in healthy populations, though it may not cure illness in sick populations.

Still, the case for positivity, or “happiness”, as an aid to quality of life for those who are ill and of extended life to those who are well, is so compelling, he writes, that policy makers should add subjective well-being to the list of public health measures.

For Dot, her enthusiasm for life makes a case of its own.

“Here am I! Still! Still!,” she marveled. “Doing things the way I always did and enjoying a simple life which I always did.”

And true to her optimistic nature, she does not fear her own death.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, with near-perfect posture, Dot reflected on the end of her life.

“When the time comes, I’m ready for it,” she said. “And I feel my family is too. We’ve had a good life.”

“But I’m in pretty good condition,” she continued with a laugh as she glanced down at her crossed legs. Her wrinkled hands gestured to herself. “Everything’s alive and I don’t have any aches or pains.”

“And I still have time for fun,” she said, “so that’s the main thing.”

Hear their voices:  Wendy shares a lesson from her mother.

"I can tell from Wendy what kind of a mother Dot was," said their friend, Connie Riley, 76. "She was a good mother. You can see that in her smiling."

The other finalists in the Aging in Vancouver series are:

Older prisoners pose new challenges for Canada’s prisons                                         
by Lisa Hale and Carrie Swiggum

Tsarist Russia’s last refuge in Vancouver by Lena Smirnova

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