In his 2003 book Aging Well, George Vaillant, an American psychiatrist, drew lessons from three longitudinal studies that followed 824 people – the parents of the baby boomers – for more than 60 years. He was fascinated by why some became "sad sick" as the years progressed and others "happy well". One of the studies selected a Harvard group for their soundness of mind. Yet a third had suffered mental illness by their 50s. "They were normal when I picked them," one researcher told Vaillant, "It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up." Childhood isn't decisive. How you start out, Vaillant learned, is no indicator of where you will end up.
He looked at those people, male and female, who had fared well emotionally as octogenarians and saw patterns in their 50s that gave signals. They were in a stable relationship, did not smoke, drank little, exercised, had a normal weight and had the maturity to handle emotional issues well, "and make a lemon into lemonade". Comfortable in their own skins, they would not have mouthed the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: "I still feel kind of temporary about myself."
It is this "social aptitude" or emotional literacy that Vaillant discovered, not intellectual brilliance, or income or parental social class or genes that leads to successful ageing – that is being rich in well being and not alone.
Some of the wealthy in his studies died alone, prematurely and miserably just like a number of the poorest.
As you age, Vaillant advised: "Don't try to think less of yourself … try to think of yourself less."
Moderation, consistency, loyalty, a lack of self-obsession and being a Mensch. Not exactly a surprising list.
But I've heard worse advice.