Some of my most basic rules to living a good long life have everything to do with relationships. We are, after all, social creatures that crave companionship. It’s a well-documented fact, for instance, that married people just live longer than their single counterparts. And it turns out that love and longevity have a lot in common. So if you want to know the real secrets to living better, take heart of the following five rules:
When you live with someone else, you have a reason to pay more attention to your health and hygiene. You’ve got another person to hold you accountable for your actions and lifestyle habits. You’re less likely to engage in risky behaviors. And you’re more likely to have a built-in system for coping with stress, because another warm human body is present in your daily life. Which might explain why happy cohabitating couples repeatedly score better on blood pressure tests than their single counterparts.
2. Pursue Your Passions
It’s important that we all develop hobbies that fulfill us in many ways—from the body’s physical needs to move and play to our emotional needs to connect with other people and enjoy sports. If you were an endurance runner in your youth, you might find it hard to keep that up as you reach middle age, and you would do well to take up a new sport that’s far less abusive to your knees and joints. The key is not to give up. Find a new hobby, or start learning to play an instrument, cook, garden, or pursue another passion that affords you the same rewards and will last for a while. Just be sure to choose activities that won’t be abandoned quickly or that aren’t highly impractical. And aim to be in a relationship with someone who encourages you to pursue your passions and share them with you.
3. Have Children
This rule won’t be for everyone, but here’s one reason why it’s worth entertaining the idea: you’d be more likely to live longer than your childless counterparts. Seems counterintuitive because with children comes a lot of extra stress. But perhaps part of the reason people who have kids outlive those who don’t is that they take better care of themselves in general and are less likely to engage in the kinds of activities that increase their risk for premature death. There’s also something to be said for all that running around you do with children. The mere act of raising a child compels us to remain active and mentally challenged—both good things for health.
4. Pick Up a Pooch
It’s long been known anecdotally that dog owners are often the happiest, most upbeat people. But it’s not all about the companionship of having a pooch to love and care for (especially if you’re still single). Owning a dog demands that you maintain a relatively constant and reliable timetable, tending to the animal’s ritualistic feedings, walks, and naps. In other words, it has the overall effect of forcing set patterns that foster health—namely sticking to a regular schedule. It also helps that walking a dog compels you to move, to engage in at least some physical exercise, even if Fido isn’t a feisty greyhound looking for a run. Being outside in nature with dogs also offers the benefits of downtime, as walking dogs requires that you leave your desk and cease multitasking—other than scooping up poop and talking on your cell phone or with a walking companion at the same time.
5. Schedule Downtime
Anyone who has burned the midnight oil at work or hasn’t had a restful vacation in a long time knows that a breaking point will be reached. This is when you shut down and struggle to be productive because you’re just so exhausted and in need of a time-out. And you find yourself arguing more with your partner. Too many of us try to cure our fatigue with infrequent vacations rather than scheduling downtime intermittently throughout the weeks of the year. Downtime isn’t just about removing oneself from work obligations and household chores; it’s also about truly relaxing in a peaceful environment in which you can let the brain take a breather and stop multitasking. This will ultimately help you to be more creative, more productive, and more loving when you jump back into the game again. See if you can schedule downtime at least once or twice a week. It needn’t be for long. Try a mere twenty minutes to start during which you avoid media and technology entirely and do something else pleasurable such as reading a book or hanging out with your partner. Build regular downtime periods into your schedule. Not only will your brain and body love it, but so will your relationship.
These rules are adapted or excerpted from a collection of rules published in Dr. David B. Agus’s A Short Guide to a Long Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
David B. Agus, MD is a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and author of the #1 NY Times bestseller The End of Illness and the recently published, A Short Guide to a Long Life, Simon & Schuster. Twitter @davidagus