Life was easier when it wasn’t so long: learn when you’re young, work while you’re able, then resign yourself to a slow period of repose–and decline. But in the past century, scientific advancements have added decades to the average human life span, leaving a person’s timeline with a long, often aimless tail.
Finding rewarding ways to fill these extra years–particularly in ways that emphasize social ties–is the best way to prolong them, research is finding. “The things that we understand now to be important for healthy longevity”–things like connecting with others, a positive outlook, making peace with getting older–“have been trivialized over the years by some scientists. We now know that shouldn’t be the case,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, a think tank that studies older age. “One of the great opportunities we all have is to continue that search [for meaning], that aspiration to do our most enjoyable and important work later in our lives.”
Here are other strategies that may help you make the most of your extra years.
It’s hard to beat face time, but FaceTime (and the like) can also help older adults feel less alone, research shows. “I think a lot of work can be done to make the existing social networks more accommodating to older adults,” Irving says.
LEAN ON FAMILY
You can’t choose them, but now you’ll be glad to have them: when people were asked to list up to five of their closest confidants, those who named more family members had a lower chance of dying in the next five years than those who didn’t report such strong family bonds. Unconditional love may play a part, since the same protective effect wasn’t seen for friendships.
Your feelings about getting older might determine how well you age–and even how well your brain holds up against Alzheimer’s. A team of researchers at Yale University found that when people who thought negatively about aging were simply primed to view it in a better light, they said they felt more positively about aging and even showed improvements in physical strength.
What helps a person live to 100–and stay healthy in the process? New findings reveal that the long-lived have a lot in common: being outgoing, open to new experiences, good at sticking to goals and not overly neurotic. Laughing, too, is a key to staying young in old age, research has found.
SET GOALS, TAKE RISKS
Plenty of research links a sense of purpose to longevity. But how do people search for a purpose if they don’t have one? Take an online course, volunteer, do anything new that challenges you. “The assumption that you should only do one thing in your life, to me, makes no sense,” says Irving.
EXPECT THE BEST
People with a positive outlook recover better after having a heart attack than those who are more pessimistic, a recent study shows. That’s partly because a hopeful attitude is linked to other healthy behaviors, like quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy diet. Optimism is also linked to fewer chronic illnesses, less depression and even a stronger immune response to bugs like the flu.
This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.