What does it take to live a long and happy life?
There are a lot of obvious places to go when it comes to talking about what makes for a long and happy life. Recent studies suggest that a happy marriage, significant and engrossing hobbies, lots of money and good friends are all you need to make it to your 115th birthday with six-pack abs, all your teeth and a dynamic sex life. “If you’re an optimistic person,” says Stephen Sinatra, M.D., cardiologist and anti-aging expert, “you’ll live a healthier and longer life.”
Got that? Money, friends, worldly attainments, good genes, optimism—all you have to do is be a certain kind of person.
And by “a certain kind of person,” I mean you’ve got to be born that way. One does not simply look at the situation and say, “I need to be an optimist? Oh, OK.” It doesn’t work that way for most people. And a lot of those life-extending qualities are things people are born with, so any advice that says you’d be better off in a completely different family, or as a completely different person, is not all that helpful. Stop looking for the optimist-pessimist switch in your wetware, because it’s not there.
Anyway, there are reasons to doubt that entire line of reasoning. I’ll give you two: My grandmothers.
Now it’s true that both of my grandfathers died in their mid 60s, Grandpa C (paternal) of emphysema, and Grandpa G (maternal) of a heart attack. On the “distaff side” (smile when you say that), both my grandmothers made it to 95, broke a hip and faded. So you might say, A-ha! All I’ve got to do is be a well-balanced female and I can live a long and happy life.
But the circumstances are somewhat deceptive. Grandpa C grew up mining coal with a cigarette glued to his lips and fought black lung disease most of his adult life—of course he developed emphysema. If he could have been born to a wealthy family, spent his youth reading books and taking quiet walks…but it was not to be. He was born into poverty to a large family in coal country, and his course was more-or-less set.
Whereas Grandpa G was married to Grandma G. And that, too, proved fatal.
We joke about this a lot in my family, but there’s some truth there. Grandma G followed us all around with a dark, flickering cloud over her head, a panicked urgency rooted in the conviction that all non-family members were depraved criminals. Any girl who left the house was allowed to do so only reluctantly, and then told to hold onto her purse at any cost; any boy who was 15 minutes overdue for lunch was probably lying in a pool of blood somewhere, and the cops should be called out, if not the fire department.
She wept when she heard I was joining the Navy. Mom was mystified: Why the tears?
“Because one of those sailors is going to turn him into a queer!”
Her pessimism was insuperable. Anything and everything spelled doom to Grandma G, and she did her best to pass that worldview on to her grandchildren. She was also the Amelia Earhart of the guilt trip, and was truly horrible to new family members. Introducing your significant other to her was like throwing them to the lions.
“Hi Gram,” you’d say, “this is my new squeeze.” Then you’d go looking for the wine, because you knew your partner was going to need it soon. She had my ex in tears within 45 minutes of meeting her, and that wasn’t the record.
She made Grandpa G’s life harder. She made him carry her purse whenever they were out in public. He winced whenever she shouted his name, and she shouted his name all day. He literally hid in the basement. I recall more than one occasion when he and I were down there, his finger to my lips, while Grandma shouted for him upstairs. She constantly rehearsed her symptoms to him, every one of which spelled death; she daily bade him to listen to the news so as to prepare to be incinerated in a nuclear fire; shouted crime statistics down the stairs whether grandpa was there or not—a pretty depressing partner, all things considered.
I’m sure he loved her, just as I’m sure she killed him.
The one clear memory I have of his funeral is my mom and my aunts, standing in front of the coffin, talking about how he had finally found peace—this, with knowing looks and side glances at their mother.
But the truth is she flourished in this unrelenting negativity, rolled in it like a dog in a dead squirrel. Indeed, her characteristic response to the most depressing news story or family disaster looked a lot like joy. Every day, the newspapers affirmed her in her pessimism and proved her darkest imaginings.
And it got her through.
The end came when she fell in the shower and had to be taken to the hospital. She held on for a few weeks. My sisters went to see her a few times and were told on each occasion that they were getting fat, and if they didn’t stop eating now, were headed for diabetes, death and divorce, in that order. Then one day, the nurse called and asked to speak to my mom.
“We’re concerned about your mother,” she said. “She’s experiencing a lot of anxiety today.”
“Uh-oh,” said mom, “you’re right, something’s up. She usually causes anxiety.”
She passed later that day. And that was the end of Grandma G.
Grandma C, by contrast, was generally cheerful and upbeat. She had given birth to 11 children and had lost four of them before they turned 5, but the world was still a beautiful place to her. She wrote and published sermons, had many artistic hobbies and interests, was one of the founding members of the Gray Panthers, fully enjoyed chasing her 33 grandchildren around with a broom handle—well, gotta have some discipline, right? And she was a beautiful person, one of the lights of my life.
OK, she smoked cigarettes and drank beer every day until she fell and broke her hip, but she lived a pretty clean life apart from that.
So, to sum up: Grandma G, pessimist, bad at relationships, paranoid and unpleasant. No vices, lived to be 95. Grandma C, optimist, the life of the party, sweet and mild. Had a few bad habits, lived to be 95.
And what have I deduced from all this? I really can’t say. Life comes at you fast sometimes, and it’s up to you to respond. Can you quit smoking and live a longer life? Sure. Can you go to church and feel better about the world? Maybe. Can you flip from optimism to pessimism after reading a couple of articles about it? If so, good for you. I can’t.
What I do have is Grandma C and Grandma G, perched like tiny angels on opposite shoulders, offering conflicting advice throughout the day. And if they ever come together on any single issue, it’s that I have to do a better job of scrubbing my ears.
So I think I’ll go do that.
Will Cutlip lives and writes in Brunswick.