Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon famously discovered the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Fla. — or did he? Turns out, the precious waters of youth may spring from within (like most true things). Researchers at Cali’s Chapman University found stable life satisfaction leads to a longer life.

“If people repeatedly encounter distressing life events that diminish their life satisfaction, then fluctuations in lower levels of satisfaction seem to be particularly harmful for longevity,” Dr. Julia Boehm, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study, stated in apress release.

Fountain of Lies?

No original documents survive Ponce de Leon’s Florida expedition, yet within the few records that outlived the man (including contracts and official correspondence with the Crown) no mention is made of a Fountain of Youth. So says J. Michael Francis, a historian at University of South Florida, who spoke to Smithsonian.

Only many years after his death in 1521 did Ponce’s name even become linked with the Fountain of Youth mythology. According to Francis, a Spanish chronicler by the name of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés hated Ponce de Leon and created the lie to make him look foolish. In fact, Oviedo aligned himself with Diego Columbus, son of Christopher and the very man who unseated Ponce de Leon from the provincial governorship of Puerto Rico.

In Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Oviedo gives a highly biased account of the Spanish settling of the Americas and inserts a false narrative about Ponce de Leon. Deceived by natives, the story goes, Ponce de Leon begins a fruitless quest for eternal youth. While spas and mineral baths were common in the 16th century, Smithsonian notes that truly believing water might reverse aging was considered silly even in that time. (Cosmetic surgery junkies take note.)

Despite the story’s origins, many people would insist Ponce de Leon and his (fictional) quest were far from silly, not silly one bit! Including, perhaps, the researchers at Chapman University who did their best to understand the relationship between satisfaction and lifespan.

Satisfaction & Longevity

Because past studies have linked greater life satisfaction with greater longevity, Boehm and her colleagues wanted to look at whether variability in satisfaction may be related in some way to longevity. And so the research group designed a simple study. Over a nine-year study period, 4,458 Australian participants (all initially at least 50 years old) responded to a question:

“All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life?”

Once a year, participants faced this life assessment and each time they rated their satisfaction level on a 10-point scale (where 10 indicated greatest satisfaction). Along with this information, the researchers tracked other factors, including each participant’s age, gender, education, health conditions, smoking status, physical activity, and depressive symptoms. After gathering all the data, Boehm and her colleagues assessed both average life satisfaction and variability in satisfaction across time.

Greater life satisfaction, on average across time, was associated with a decrease in mortality risk, while greater fluctuation in life satisfaction was associated with an increase in mortality risk.

For participants whose life satisfaction increased over the nine-year period, risk of mortality plummeted by 18 percent. By contrast, when participants expressed a variable satisfaction with life, this linked to a 20 percent boost in their risk of mortality.

“The key point is that variability seemed to matter most for people who were the least satisfied. People who had low levels of life satisfaction combined with satisfaction scores that were fluctuating across time had the highest risk of mortality,” Boehm told Medical Daily in an email. “By contrast, people who had high levels of life satisfaction tended to have a reduced risk of mortality, regardless of the variability in their scores.” Unhappiness, then, can be counterbalanced by steadiness until we reach a new plateau of contentment.

At the age of 47, Ponce de Leon died from an arrow wound sustained during a fight with a native tribe in Florida. Trying to make him look foolish, his enemy instead made Ponce de Leon immortal.

Source: Boehm JK, Winning Ashley, Segerstrom S, Kubzansky LD. Variability Modifies Life Satisfaction’s Association With Mortality Risk in Older Adults. Psychological Science. 2015.