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I do think that chimpanzees who have survived into old age have adopted healthy habits that promote survival. I don’t think chimpanzees realize life is getting shorter. My speculation is that a couple of things may be happening. Human adolescents are really stimulated by novelty. They like surging emotions, and they like to take risks. This may be true with chimpanzees as well, and it might help them experience new things, reproduce and achieve dominance and status. But it is tiring, so when you have an older body, it might be nice to stay with what is familiar and comfortable. Decreasing energy levels might equally play a role in humans. In addition, [Stanford researcher] Robert Sapolsky found that grooming behavior among older male wild baboons is related to less stress. Perhaps the chimpanzees who were more prosocial and focused on companions that engaged in grooming behavior reaped the benefit of this social support.
But of course, we also have these incredible brains that allow us to put things in perspective.
Like people, older chimps also have more positive social interactions than younger ones do, a 2020 study reported. (Photostock-Israel / Science Photo Library via Getty Images)
Your findings might certainly inspire people to pursue a more positive attitude. At the same time, if you’re someone who is getting older and is unhappy, it might not make you feel better to read this.
For people who are unhappy, it’s really important to look at how to structure your days to feel more fulfilled. I guess for everyone I would say: When you’re making a list of health behaviors, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating right are important factors that most people agree should be included, but social relationships is something that is as important as your cholesterol level, yet is often forgotten. Make sure that you spend time cultivating your social ties, treasuring and prioritizing your close friends and family members, at whatever age you are. Finding purpose and meaning in life is also vitally important. What that is can be different for different people, but finding an important purpose and following that can be very emotionally gratifying.
Does that imply there might also be a risk of becoming too emotionally comfortable?
Yes. You can be so comfortable that you no longer encounter any challenges, and you really need to stay engaged in cognitive challenges. In a recently published study, we followed people over eight days. Every night, they were interviewed, and we’d ask about stressors. Did they get into an argument? Was there a situation where they could have argued, but decided not to? Are there any problems at home or at work?
We asked over 2,500 people about the relatively minor stressors they had experienced, such as a problem at work or an argument, every night over eight days. About 10 percent of the people reported never having experienced even one stressor. They also reported being happier than those who reported at least one stressor. But what we also found was that they performed worse on cognitive tests compared to people who reported at least one stressor. They also reported having received or given less help to others, and that they had spent more time watching TV.
Twenty years ago, we thought that if you have positive relationships and a certain lifestyle, you can have the highest emotional functioning, the highest cognitive functioning, the best physical health, the perfect life for you. Now it turns out to be a little more complicated. People who are reporting being happiest are also not as high in cognitive functioning.
This may be because people who have no stressors are spending less time with other people. The people you know and love are also sometimes the source of your stress. But they also challenge you and engage you in problem-solving activities. So it’s not that you can find optimal well-being in all areas; there might be a tradeoff. It’s like: “I want to be a volunteer, it gives me emotional meaning, I have a lot of purpose in life, but I’m also going to run into some people that may bother me.”
So people should strive for some kind of balance? How would you suggest they achieve it?
People definitely should strive for balance, but no one size will fit all. For example, we know that people benefit from having strong social ties, but people vary in the number of close friends and time they spend with others. We know that people need to stay physically active, yet some people prefer swimming and others jogging. We know that activities that are challenging for some people are boring for others.
To achieve balance, people need to know themselves, and make decisions that create dynamic lives where they are socially active and engaged in a way that makes them feel a sense of belonging and makes them feel needed. They need activities that are challenging for them, where they learn new information and have to remember this information — but this could be learning a new musical instrument or learning the layout of a new park or even an alternative world in a video game. They need to engage in physical activity that maintains or even enhances their physical health and functioning.
They need to think about their daily lives and how to live so that they engage in behaviors that optimize their physical health, cognitive functioning and emotional well-being.
Might there be a way for young people to press the fast-forward button to achieve some of the same emotional benefits older people acquire with age, or should they just be patient?
In the past 10 years, people have been talking more about mindfulness as an emotional regulation strategy. That is interesting, because it takes you away from focusing on the future and reminds you that the present moment is the most important. I think those are things that older people often do, but younger people may need to be reminded of. It can really help to have a moment at the end of the week to say, “Right now, things are going well — let’s just enjoy that for today.” It would be wonderful if that was something the youth could learn from older people.
I think as I grow older, I really understand it more profoundly. I always get a kick out of experiencing what the research shows.
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