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Howard S. Friedman

Distinguished Professor of Psychology
Howard S. Friedman
Unfolding the Secrets of a Long Life
Taking a fresh look at a subject that has intrigued and confounded people for eons, Howard Friedman and his colleagues are sorting out the factors that contribute to long life, with surprising results solidly grounded in personality and health psychology research.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Psychosocial factors in health and health care
  • Longitudinal study of longevity
  • Emotional response patterns
  • Nonverbal communications
College: Press Releases/Articles: Profiles:

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award (2012)
  • James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award, Association for Psychological Science (2008)
  • Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology Award, American Psychological Assn (1999)
  • Fellow, American Psychological Association
  • Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Fellow, Society of Behavioral Medicine

Q&A

Q: You started the widely-cited Longevity Project, which has given us new insights into what factors confer long lives. How did the project get started?The Longevity Project grew out of my interest in how a person’s personality influences his or her long-term health. But how could I study this across the decades? Fortunately, in 1921, the Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman (best known for inventing the Stanford-Binet IQ test) began gathering data on more than 1,500 bright 10-year-old children. Data collection on this cohort has continued to this day. So, starting in 1991, we have been able to supplement, refine and recast the data archive. For example, we have been gathering all the death certificates (over 1400) for those deceased. I am looking for healthy psychosocial patterns that matter over the course of decades! My then-graduate student Leslie Martin and I, along with many other UCR students, have focused on personality traits, relationships, behaviors, experiences and career paths. The surprising results overturned many long-held myths about health.

Q: Why is your work important? How does it benefit society?
I’m honored that my studies on health, longevity and well-being have been of great interest to the scientific community as well as the popular media worldwide. We’ve developed new scientific understandings about how personality and social contexts influence a healthy life, debunking some notions and giving people new strategies to be healthy longer. For example, we found that, contrary to common wisdom, worrying, working hard and being a bit obsessively focused—what personality psychologists call being “conscientious”—are healthy patterns. Being happy and carefree in the face of adversity does not, in fact, lead to a longer life. The factors that did correlate with longevity, though, include strategies most of us can pursue, including consistent patterns of being physically active (though not necessarily "exercising"), a habit of giving back to the community, a long and absorbing career, and a healthy marriage and family life. Most intriguingly, we are finding how and why these healthy attributes clump together in long-term healthy patterns.

Q: You have received a number of teaching excellence awards, including UCR's Distinguished Teaching Award and the recent national honor from the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award Trust for inspiring students to make a difference in the community. Tell us about some of your students.
My former graduate students are doing amazing things. Joan Tucker is senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation (the think tank in Santa Monica) where she conducts outstanding research in the areas of substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. Ron Riggio is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College and is making major contributions to understanding and improving leadership. Brynn Nodarse is doing important community work, and Plácida Gallegos is an inter-group facilitator and consultant who has spent her career working to create healthier, more inclusive organizational cultures. Peggy Kern is an upcoming leader in the new field of positive health psychology. My co-author on the latest Longevity Project book, Leslie Martin, is professor and chair of psychology at nearby La Sierra University. Like Joan and Ron and Peggy, Leslie has received awards for distinguished research, excellence in teaching and community leadership. She also likes to climb mountains in exotic locales, something she definitely did not learn in my lab. Of course, many wonderful former undergrads have excelled as well, and I recently heard from one who took courses with me three decades ago!

Q: What is the biggest myth about your research? What doesn’t the public know or understand about this kind of research?
People need to think long term and not fret about immediate challenges. There is a terrible misunderstanding about stress. Our research reveals that a challenging job, which demands responsibility and meaningful work, is actually healthy. Those who worked hard lived the longest; that is, the responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves. In our recent book (The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study), Leslie Martin and I discuss these kinds of nuances and include references to scholarly works that will take an interested reader into even more depth. We are absolutely thrilled that this book has just won a national best award in the Books for a Better Life honors!

Q: In your spare time, what are you reading, seeing or following that you found interesting and/or inspiring?
We live today in a vast echo chamber with lots of talking-head trivial nonsense echoing off the twitter walls. My students quickly learn never to say to me “They found…” or “They say…” without knowing who “they” are and whether the assertion is well-founded. I’ll read any book or essay that is well-developed and outside the box. I recently went back and again watched the film Night and Fog (1955) (Nuit et Brouillard), a very artistic rendition of brutal inhumanity. If you understand genocide and racism, you understand all of social science.

Q: How do your students inspire you?
I received a telephone call at home in late December from a woman saying she was calling from Wells Fargo bank. I figured she was trying to sell me a credit card and so I almost hung up. But then she started congratulating me on the receiving the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award, and I was absolutely thrilled! What could be better than an award for inspiring students in making a difference in the community? (It turns out that the bank administers the trust funds, although the award recipient is decided by a committee of scientists.). For me, the greatest thing about being a professor is having wonderful, motivated students, and being able to show them the research process and turn them on to new ideas that will improve the physical and psychological well-being of themselves and their communities. I love it.

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
The best response is the one-word answer in The Graduate given to Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin: “Plastics.” Or, if you want a slightly wordier version, there is the same sentiment from Steve Jobs: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

Q: If you had unlimited resources and no constraints, what would you do to further your research??
We need a new theory of what it means to be healthy. Traditional approaches of “curing disease” are seriously flawed, in so many ways. So if there is someone out there looking to provide unlimited resources, I’m game to get to work.

Howard S. Friedman "It’s surprising just how often common assumptions about predictors of long life—by both scientists and the media—are wrong."

—Howard Friedman