Longevity and Happiness

February 21, 2017
SSIR course explores longevity through travel and field study

By Ayaka Hasegawa, ’19

“If I should die tomorrow, I’d be perfectly happy... No regrets… I tell them all not to mourn because I’m ready… I’ve had a good life.”

These words came from 97-year-old Joy Saunders. She lives with one of her eight daughters and their dog in the small town of Lunenberg in Nova Scotia. Saunders was reflecting on her life while a group of students, including myself, from the Longevity and Happiness Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course listened.

We were in Nova Scotia and Boston for fall break, where we learned about the biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors, as well as the personal choices, that contribute to a person’s longevity. We listened to stories from centenarians and nonagenarians, and genealogists, trying to find the answer to one overarching question: “Why do some people live exceptionally long lives while others live only an ‘average’ number of years?”

While the interviewees’ answers differed, they all pointed back to something they cared about or were passionate about. Saunders, for example, responded, “I’ve always done volunteer work. Always. You’ve got to keep not thinking of yourself; there’s always someone worse off than you, and you can help them.” She also mentioned that taking care of her daughter and their dog every morning were reasons to get up every day.

My classmate Hannah Wolfe, ’19, said the conversations not only helped her learn important interviewing skills, but were also a chance to take in advice from centenarians and nonagenarians. “It was inspiring to see how positive the Nova Scotians were about the future,” she said. “I realized that aging doesn't have to be a scary process.”

The trip was not our class’ only opportunity to interact with the elderly; we also took our learning into the community of Richmond. We have been volunteering at an assisted living facility called Sunrise. Every week, we visit the residents and play games, bake, or go on a walk while having conversations and getting to know each other. Consistently visiting at the same time every week helps deepen our relationship with certain residents, and they seem excited to see us.

Dr. Jane Berry, a psychology professor who teaches the course, feels that the subject matter lends itself well to community-based learning. “For students to work with older adults allows materials they’re studying in class to come alive; it puts a face to that material, that knowledge,” she said. “They’re learning about aging through research articles and literature, and then they get to test whether or not that really is apparent in living human beings.”

To capture all that we have learned from the class readings, the fall break trip, and the volunteer experience, we worked on group research papers at the end of last semester. Each group focused on different factors that contribute to longevity, such as age stereotypes, relationships, and religion. My group researched personalities using the Big Five Personality Model, which describes the five basic dimensions of personality: conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness and agreeableness. We shared our findings in a class debate and I was able to learn in-depth about each topic, all of which are relevant to our daily lives. For example, my research taught me that those who are conscientious tend to live longer; I can take this into consideration and be more mindful in various situations, which could perhaps be beneficial in the long run.

As a scholar of aging, Dr. Berry is excited that her students are able to investigate longevity and happiness with the depth that a SSIR course allows. “I loved the idea of being with students all year and traveling with them to a site that would deepen their knowledge of the topic,” she said.

For me and my fellow students, being part of the SSIR program has been more than just learning about the course’s topic. It comes with the experience of living and traveling together, bonding with our peers, and sharing the memories we have as a group. It has also allowed us to get to know and connect with Dr. Berry on a deeper level. I think we will all have this bond long after the course is over.

My classmate Hannah agreed. "I was able to learn and grow with my classmates both inside and outside the classroom," she said. “Learning, volunteering, researching, and living together took us from a group of people who didn't know each other to a family. This SSIR has undoubtedly helped me grow as a student, traveler, and overall person."