Sunday, February 7, 2010

it pays to be peculiar

If you want to live a long time, there is a line of research that hints that it helps to be peculiar. Eccentrics—a rare and perhaps dying breed of humans—go to the doctor once every eight or nine years and have a tendency to live healthy and prolonged lives. These lives, according to an elderly and rumpled back issue of Psychology Today, are free from stress and full of diverting adventures. The symptoms of eccentricity are insatiable curiosity, obsessive but curiously happy preoccupations, the constructive use of solitude, and an absence of that modern plague, stress. Other people almost certainly tell eccentrics to floss, be on time, and chew with their mouths closed, but the eccentrics simply do not listen.

There was once a librarian at the British Museum during the 18th century who was an overcommitted angler: to outwit the fish, he designed a costume “to make himself look more like a tree.” Which makes the reader wonder how much he looked like a tree to begin with; his name, we are told, was Birch. A modern eccentric, Alan Fairweather, is a potato inspector for Scotland’s Department of Agriculture. He lives for potatoes—he talks about them incessantly, eats nothing else, and takes his annual vacation in Peru, the homeland of the potato, so he can study the potato’s, um, roots. Henry Cavendish so disliked having to talk to his domestic staff that he sent them letters; upon meeting a maid accidentally on the stairs, he ordered another whole staircase built. But Cavendish was the same useful citizen who determined that water was not an element but a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

Clinical neuropsychologist David Weeks sought out and interviewed more than a thousand eccentrics for his 1995 book, Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. In it, he finds that the incidence of “classic, full-time” eccentricity is only about 1 in 10,000, and that there is an inexplicable concentration of eccentrics in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Or at least he finds it inexplicable; folks in Minnesota would probably blame the weather, which they blame for just about everything, and which is frankly a lot like the weather here.

The health of eccentrics, Weeks thinks, is directly linked to their peculiar brand of happiness—they are marked by resourcefulness and engagement, and follow their impulses without fretting over all the possible consequences. This makes them unpredictable and at times downright annoying, but it also makes them surprisingly tough: Chronic stress, which damages the immune system and triggers depression, is largely absent in eccentrics. And they also have what Weeks calls “positive forms of stress, such as those associated with sex, exercise, and the intellectual excitement of new ideas.” These, he says, tend trigger the release of slightly higher levels of growth hormone, and it is growth hormone that counteracts many of the diseases associated with aging such as osteoporosis and muscle atrophy. “Growth hormone,” he writes, “has also been shown to have a good effect on memory, and eccentrics even tend to look younger than their biological age.”

Because his collection of contemporary eccentrics were all still uncompromisingly alive, Weeks turned to the historical record to investigate longevity. His historical sample of oddballs, which was drawn broadly from 1551 to 1950, revealed that all lived to 60 and beyond—even, and perhaps especially, during the periods when live expectancy was hovering around 35. If it’s true, it’s a remarkable finding—it must be added that Weeks has been criticized for the softness of his data and his tendency to rely on small samples, impressions, and anecdotes. Undaunted, he has gone on to write Secrets of the Superyoung, which explores why some people can show up at their 25th reunion looking wonderful while the rest of us are plump, droopy, or taller than our hair.

The criticism doesn’t really mar the central finding Weeks insists on—a happy breed is a healthy breed, and people who don’t worry about conforming never suffer the side effects of angst. Of course, they may trigger it—living with an eccentric is no doubt exasperating. They hate electricity or love insulation or write long, crackpot essays about clown college or nematodes or tropical fish; the inventor Nikola Tesla had a deadly fear of women wearing pearl earrings and the painter Salvador Dali ate mountains of soft-ripened cheese to enhance his dreams, which is not only eccentric but expensive.

But the bad news is that eccentricity—true eccentricity—is apparently diminishing. It helps to be the first born in a family, upper middle class, and a voracious reader, but despite living in a culture with smaller families, more money, and more books, the breed declines. Or, perhaps, they are merely perfecting their disguises; for all we really know, Mr. Birch may well be thriving, after 300 years, in the English countryside.

Robert Frost once defined a civilized society as one that “tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity”; using this as a yardstick, it’s hard not to wonder if we really are civilized or whether we have decided instead that a little medication will settle everybody down. But to be settled is not always to be happy—or healthy—and too often “settled” means eating cinnamon toast in front of the television. We should cherish our eccentrics when we find them, or when they allow themselves to be found. Fancy cheese is a small price to pay for a Dali; I’ll take the truth about water in exchange for an unnecessary staircase.

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