Monday 22 July 2019

From happiness to drive, what makes people superhuman?

A former Trinity College fellow has travelled the world to meet life's elite, writes Niamh Horan

Author: Rowan Hooper
Author: Rowan Hooper
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Several years ago, Rowan Hooper was at a conference for primatologists. Wine glass in hand, he began to wax lyrical about how like chimps humans are, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with one of the party. "The difference between us and them is only a matter of degrees," he said. The primatologist he'd been chatting to smiled an assassin's smile, and asked: "Can chimps build their own LHC then?"

That single remark knocked the managing editor of New Scientist magazine off his perch.

It was just after the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland had been used to discover the Higgs boson and Rowan realised how much he underestimated the capabilities of human potential. For the next few years while researching his new book, Superhuman, he travelled the world meeting people who are the best in a range of coveted traits.

Published this week, the book details conversations with people who have reached the peak of human potential in happiness, focus, resilience, sleep, ageing, language, bravery, and much more - and lays out the scientific studies that back up their experiences. He spoke to the Sunday Independent about findings that celebrate the best that we can be.


For this, Rowan spoke not to people who were happy because their lives were good, but to those who were happy despite horrific circumstances.

Shirley Parsons was a successful solicitor. After a stroke she developed locked-in syndrome. She could only communicate by moving her eyes across a specially designed computer. Paralysed from the neck down for 14 years, her mind remains intact. She told Rowan "bizarrely, I think that I am happier". She said: "Before the stroke my life was noisy and hectic but now most of the time it's quiet, peaceful and calm. Over the years I've grown accustomed and become content with my life."

Rowan realised that the people he met had, through forced circumstances or not, made their lives simpler (some had also given away money and material possessions). People often complain there are too many distractions in their busy lives, and it seems we'd be happier if we got rid of some of them. It seems Shirley's story proved this to be the case. In fact, she is not alone.

In 2008, when a quality-of-life survey was conducted on 65 other people with locked-in syndrome, 47 described themselves as "happy". The longer they'd spent locked-in, the happier they were.

Researchers concluded that perhaps they had recalibrated their lives. They knew themselves better and understood life's meaning more strongly than before. Being locked-in forced them to halt and look for a meaning they may not have sought before. In the words of Socrates, "Know thyself". Look inwards to be happy, they found, not outwards.


In 2004, Ellen MacArthur sailed 27,000 nautical miles around the world, non-stop, on her own. It took her just over 71 days. She was 29.

Rowan asked Ellen how you maintain concentration 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for two-and-a-half months, on your own, with little down time. She told him she could have capsized that boat at any time. She had to sleep with the ropes in her hands and could never let go, literally or figuratively, for the whole trip. "Mentally, it is absolutely brutal. You get to the point where you feel you have nothing left and then something goes wrong. And you have no choice. No one's going to come and help you... It's your home, it's your life. You do get used to it," she said.

Asked how she maintained her focus, she said: "It all stems from having a goal. For me, from the age of four years old, I wanted to sail around the world." Rowan found the people he met, like Ellen, explained time and time again in different words that you can overcome any obstacles if you have a burning passion and a goal to strive towards. Find a 'why' and you'll find a way.


Dave Henson was a bomb disposal officer in the British Army. His job was to look for improvised explosive devices planted by the Taliban. He had a one-in-six chance of being blown to pieces or maimed.

As one of his commanding officers explained: "To do this all day, every day, for six months demands a certain kind of mettle - a persistent courage." What Rowan discovered was the power of collective bravery. As Dave explained: "It's not me going out on a lonely walk on my own to find bombs, it was me and team of people - and that made all the difference." Rowan found that bravery can be bolstered by being in a team. That team can be family or friends, even a collective circle in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. When you have a strong support network, it can make all the difference.


Rowan looked at how lifespan has been increasing, and what we're learning about this.

Though diet and exercise can increase lifespan, he found that few centenarians try to live to a hundred. They just do it. They weren't pill-popping or calorie-restricting or whatever - they just blundered through. He cites Jeanne Calment, the most famous person in ageing research, who died at the age of 122. She smoked for 96 years and put away a kilogram of chocolate a week. Another super-ager Rowan met, Elizabeth Love (101), drinks a glass of sherry before lunch every day and a gin before dinner. That is on top of her 10 cigarettes a day for the best part of 70 years. She loathes exercise.

Rowan says "you might suspect they have a pure, clean genome but weirdly scientists have found super-agers had those genes that are known to cause horrible diseases but they also had other mysterious genes that were protecting them. We don't know what those protective factors are yet. It's just pretty amazing that they are there." He also cites researchers who found mental resilience to be a common trait in centenarians. They didn't achieve that extraordinary lifespan because they'd had an easy life, but because they'd dealt with stress efficiently when it struck.

They used phrases such as "accept whatever life brings", "don't worry about the past", "take each day as it comes" and "do what you can to make things better and then forget it". They had the power to accept things they could not change.

'Superhuman: Life at the extremes of our capacity', published by Little, Brown, is out now

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