Stress, telomeres, and Richard Branson.
If there’s one star of political theatre who’s looking good — really good — among all the madness of that past couple months, it’s Barack Obama.
“He’s rested & has a glow about him,” tweeted the activist DeRay Mckesson. “The man is back.”
And there’s a reason: That glow presents a study in the link between stress and appearance. Scientifically speaking, when the weight of the free world is off your shoulders, you’re liable to look good.
University of Dundee evolutionary psychologist Fhionna Moore and her team have studied the links between stress and facial attractiveness. As reported in a 2011 paper, they that the higher the levels of cortisol that men had, the less heterosexual women found them attractive.
Cortisol is vitally important to our vitality, Moore says. It helps shift how the body allocates energy, from long-term processes like digestion to things you need to deal with an immediate stressor, whether that’s outrunning a lion or thinking clearly about a problem at work. This makes it useful in the short term, she says, but less so if it’s maximized all the time.
“The problem with humans, and our modern lifestyle in particular, is that the stressors we encounter don’t tend to be short-burst events like running from a predator,” she tells Thrive Global. Our stressors are extended, like dealing with a difficult workplace, comparing ourselves to other people, or worrying about money. “In terms of responsibilities, there can’t be many jobs that compare with President of the USA,” she adds.
We don’t yet know how long it takes for us to recover, attractiveness-wise, from long-term (in this case, eight year) stressors. It probably has to do with how long the stressor lasts and how much someone is able to readjust psychologically and physiologically, Moore says. When it comes to restoring your wellbeing, it’s hard to beat a kitesurfing vacation with Richard Branson.
“Any president who goes from working as a public servant with a grueling schedule, for four or eight years, to controlling their own time, should have a dramatic improvement in their health,” says Elissa Epel, psychiatrist and director of the University of California-San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Lab. It’s evidenced in Obama’s newly signature look of unbuttoned top buttons and a smart jacket: “Meet post-presidency Obama, cool, calm, and deeeeply casual,” quipped a CNN columnist.
Epel, co-author of the bestselling The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, says that releasing all that responsibility has to be liberating—along with eating better, sleeping better, and spending more time with loved ones.
The science of stress resilience goes all the way down to the building blocks of life. Epel’s co-author, Elizabeth Blackburn, shared a Nobel Prize for her research on telomeres, which are little tips — like the aglets at the end of a shoelace — on your DNA. They’re one of the best indicators of aging: the more they’re worn down, the less your cells can renew themselves, leading to biological aging.
Nobody knows how long it takes for telomeres to rebound after a stressful period, but multiple studies have found that exercise protects people from the telomere-shortening effects of stress. Obama reportedly maintained a daily workout routine throughout his presidency. (“You have to exercise,” he told Vanity Fair. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.”) At the end of his time in office, a White House physical found that Obama was in better shape than the average 50-year-old American man — which may also explain his rapid bounce back.
But you shouldn’t mistake the former president’s chill for apathy, Epel is careful to emphasize. “I would never say Obama is enjoying Trump’s presidency,” she says. “He caught up a bit on vacation. He is good at moving on to other important work, and he is good at smiling for the camera.” While the man in the White House keeps serving up chaos, the man who just left is keeping his cool.