Marta Zaraska is a science journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Scientific American, New Scientist, The Atlantic, Discover, and many other outlets. Her new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, just hit the shelves. The book is “a research-driven case for why optimism, kindness, and strong social networks will keep us living longer than any fitness tracker or superfood.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Marta about happiness, health, and relationships.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Marta: Spending time in nature with my friends. I live in France, so picnics are a big thing here—and I absolutely love it. Call friends, pack some cheese, baguette, a bottle of wine, and head to the fields, a forest, a chateau park. Always makes me happy!
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it matters for your physical health. I thought that happiness was just about my mental wellbeing, my psyche. Yet it actually affects us on a very biological level. Studies show that happy people live anywhere between four and ten years longer than those who are less satisfied with their lives. Happiness, and in particular eudaimonic happiness, so finding meaning in life, can lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. It can change certain parts of our brain, such as the insula, and can even affect our gene expression.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
I used to be obsessed with healthy nutrition and exercise. I still think it’s important, but after reading hundreds of research studies and talking to dozens of scientists while researching Growing Young I came to realize that I’ve been putting too much time and effort into finding the best organic foods and most beneficial exercise routines, while disregarding things such as optimism, kindness, or simply holding hands with my husband. And these are the things that sometimes are even more important to health than nutrition or physical activity. Studies show, for instance, that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 per cent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower that risk by 23 to 33 per cent.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I’ve learned to patiently let other people into traffic when I’m driving. And yes, it is a health habit! It’s my small random kindness contribution—which actually can really boost your health—it reduces stress and even improves your antibody production in the blood.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Obliger—I guess I’m really not very good at keeping my resolutions when no one holds me accountable. I managed to give up sugar completely for months, but it only worked because in the early days I told my husband to oversee my progress (and shame me if I broke the rules!). I’m back to eating sugar now, however—the pandemic was too much, especially that we are in the very epicenter of France’s outbreak. I’ll have to try again.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Sheer amount of work, especially these days. I’m a working mom, so it’s never easy, but now with the coronavirus pandemic I have homeschooling on top of my regular writing job, so keeping healthy habits is an uphill battle—at least when it comes to diet or exercise. But I do try to remember about my “other” healthy habits, such as hugging my husband or video-calling my family and friends (much better for your wellbeing and health than texting!).
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”—it’s a quote from Nietzsche and I have it hanging in my office. For me the “why” is to do my modest share in preventing catastrophic climate change so that my child, and all other young people, can still enjoy our beautiful planet in the future in a relatively unchanged state. I think about it whenever I feel down or unmotivated, and it truly lifts my spirits to know there is something bigger than me that I believe in.