When I was a doctoral student, I got into a discussion with a friend as to just what was the definition of “cool.” The subject has continued to intrigue me, which has led to my recent research while a psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. What I learned could point to possible health impacts – especially for men.
Why is being ‘cool’ important?
The state of “being cool” is a powerful force, urging us to emulate others we regard as cool. While young mainstream individuals may no longer think of James Dean-types as cool, for men of a certain generation, rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness and thrill-seeking still may make up the essence of coolness.
Old-school ‘cool’ might not be good for your health
Men in the U.S. today generally live five years less than women. This comes at great personal and financial cost to families and society. There is a reason why 8 out of 10 residents at nursing homes are women – because men have died five years earlier, leaving their families and friends to cope without them. While genetics and testosterone play a part, experts agree that men could close the mortality gap if they dialed down their reckless behaviors – like smoking, drinking, not wearing a seat belt, having unprotected sex, overeating, general denial, refusal to seek medical attention until it’s too late, and more. Heart disease, stroke and cancer take an alarming toll every year on men in our country just because they are unwilling to change unhealthy behaviors.
Older men might take a cue from the younger generation and apply that knowledge to change their ways. My findings, recently published in the Journal of Individual Differences, showed that modern characteristics associated with coolness are markedly different from those of an older generation – the very cohort that generated the concept of cool. I was not prepared to find that coolness has lost so much of its historical origins and meaning—the very heavy counter cultural, somewhat individualistic pose I associated with cool.
Take your pick, Tom Hanks or Mickey Rourke?
The emotionally controlled, detached outsider is no longer the epitome of cool. If anything, sociability and being nice is considered to be cool. The much darker version of what coolness is, is still there, but it is not the main focus. A significant number of participants used adjectives that focused on positive, socially desirable traits, such as friendly, competent, trendy and attractive. The main things were: Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful?
It’s easy to translate these qualities to lifestyle behaviors that impact health. Would the friendly, competent, modern man next door get into fist-fights, smoke, use drugs and not care about his friends and family? Probably not.
Ilan Dar-Nimrod, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow and psychologist in the department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He is the lead author of “Coolness: An Empirical Investigation,” recently published in the Journal of Individual Differences. His main research interests are the effects of genetics and social environment on decision-making and health behaviors. When he was 13, Dar-Nimrod got his first pair of sunglasses – and for the next few days was the coolest kid on the block.