Huffpost Healthy Living
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sharon McElroy Headshot

Can Good Stress Improve Your Health?

Posted: Updated:

It turns out that having a challenging career can actually be quite good for you. Counter to what we often hear, a landmark study recently found that certain types of stress are linked to living longer lives.

This research, summarized in a book called The Longevity Project, shows that qualities like ambition, perseverance, and motivation are pretty healthy for you.

But reacting to colleagues? Not so much.

Howard Friedman, Ph.D., who co-authored the study, wrote, "The results were very clear: Those with the most career success were the least likely to die young."

Perhaps we already know this intuitively -- living a purposeful life feels great. And the data indicates that purposeful living is healthier than feeling unsatisfied with your work, or not living up to your potential, even if you are not in your dream job.

Friedman says that your own road map is more important than family biology, and the chances of predicting your health and longevity from your genes are mediocre at best. "The experience of your relatives is not very precise at all. Your own life path matters more."

We all know that health care costs are increasing exponentially, and radical changes are needed to shift from a disease-focused system of care to a health-focused one.

Couple the questions about rising costs with the fact that our assumptions about what is healthy can be misleading, and we see how important it is to dig deeper into the longevity question. Also, common wisdom says that to live a long life you should exercise, not smoke, and eat well. These are helpful ideas, but is there more to the story?

Scientists are still striving to understand what causes people to live longer, according to Dr. Thomas Rando, Deputy Director at Stanford's Center on Longevity.

In a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he questions the thought that aging is unavoidable. He mentions Jeanne Calment, the world record holder as the "clearly documented oldest person." In her 122 years, she met Vincent Van Gogh in her French hometown and almost saw in the millennium.

Anecdotally, Rando also showed the audience photos of Tina Turner at 70 compared to Charles Darwin at 64. Needless to say, Tina looked much better than Charles. Baby boomers today generally look and act much younger than people used to in their 60s.

It's not just boomers, either. "Eighty-year-olds today are living healthier lives than 80-year-olds used to. We don't know why," said Rando.

What occurs to me from reading the findings of The Longevity Project is that perhaps one reason for this is that people are growing in their sense of purpose. If qualities like conscientiousness and altruistic ambition are healthy, perhaps consciousness, rather than genes, plays a more significant role in longevity.

If so, then it's never too early to start thinking more about developing such spiritual qualities. But how do we bring them out in our lives?

At one point I changed careers after some soul-searching. I took a major cut in pay and a humbling shift in roles. My new, part-time, position was with an organization whose mission I fully supported, but I felt that the role didn't challenge me intellectually. I could be orderly, helpful, and kind; however, that didn't feel like it was enough. So I started to consider more deeply the kinds of qualities I wanted to be expressing while working.

I focused more on my spiritual identity as the expression of the divine consciousness that couldn't be hindered in its purpose -- and I saw that I was naturally able to exhibit the full range of qualities this entailed right where I was, no matter what chair I happened to be sitting in.

And as I expanded my thought, my job description expanded to embrace the need for those qualities, too. As it turns out, the part-time role soon led to a full-time one and then on to many bigger opportunities.

So that's one side of the coin. But what about reacting with hostility or hurt pride to interpersonal issues, which research has shown to be unhealthy?

For me, that's often the toughest part of work.

At one company, I worked for someone who was often vocal about his negative feelings and frustration with the work. I didn't know if I could continue on there. Sometimes I would find myself standing in his office doorway receiving a verbal lashing.

I sought guidance on this issue by turning again to a sense of what was spiritually needed. I was led to look for good qualities that this guy already expressed. It wasn't easy at first to see many, as I felt blinded by my reaction to his overriding negativity.

But I started to see that his heart was in his work, and he really wanted to benefit others through the efforts we made. I saw qualities like diligence and thoughtfulness.

After a few months of thinking this way, I realized I didn't have the same reaction to him anymore. Not only that, but he also started to visibly change his approach as he became more interested in spiritual aspects of life. Today we remain friends, and there isn't a trace of the animosity or resentment I had felt.

I still have much more to learn regarding harmonious interactions with people, but my daily aspiration is to appreciate what's good and divinely beautiful about the people around me. This approach helps me put aside feelings of wounded pride, jealousy, or dissatisfaction, and replace them with more love, selflessness, and stillness.

To me, this approach follows, in a small way, what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." To seek what's good and pure ultimately leads to fullness and true satisfaction, so much more so than getting enmeshed in office politics.

If we find ourselves dissatisfied in a current role, seeking this type of spiritual fulfillment sometimes might lead to finding a new role. But other times, it may involve seeing differently what's been there all along.

That thought shift can change everything.

For more on Sharon Frey, click here.

For more on the spirit, click here.

From Our Partners