Feel good about yourself, don't work too hard, and don't worrying too much...it's all good advice, but they're not actually going to help you live any longer. That's the counterintuitive finding of a 20-year study examining how personality affects longevity.
As it turns out, all these things that might help improve the quality of your life have next to no effect on its quantity. It's only natural to assume some connection, but that's not what the Longevity Project, a decades-long study led by researchers at UC Riverside, have discovered. Project leader Howard S. Friedman explains:
"It's surprising just how often common assumptions — by both scientists and the media — are wrong. When we started, we were frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity. It was clear that some people were more prone to disease, took longer to recover, or died sooner, while others of the same age were able to thrive. All sorts of explanations were being proposed — anxiety, lack of exercise, nerve-racking careers, risk-taking, lack of religion, unsociability, disintegrating social groups, pessimism, poor access to medical care, and Type A behavior patterns.
Friedman and his fellow researchers examined all these possibilities and more by drawing on the research of the late Stanford psychologist Louis Terman, who began gathering data on bright 10-year-olds back in 1921, then followed this same group throughout their lives. Picking up this baton twenty years ago, Friedman and his team have been able to zero in on the real factors that promote longevity...and, as he explains, it all starts young:
"Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one's risk of dying decades later."
So what did they discover after twenty years of research in which over a hundred graduate students combed through tens of thousands of pages of data gathered throughout the lives of Terman's subjects? Fellow researcher Leslie R. Martin summaries a key result, and it's really not what you'd expect:
"We came to a new understanding about happiness and health. One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest."
A lot of it comes down to how that early behavior influences later health decisions. The more cheerful, carefree kids tend to take much greater risks with their bodies and lives than their counterparts. For all the good optimism can do in a crisis, over the long haul, Professor Friedman says it tends to shorten people's lives:
"We found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that 'everything will be just fine' can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health go together because they have common roots."
They discovered a bunch of other general trends that link to longevity. In another counterintuitive finding, people who work the hardest live the longest, as those who are the most committed to their job tended to live far longer than those with a more laid-back attitude. Marriage can be a big factor for men, but not really for women. Steadily married men live far longer than divorced men, only a third of whom lived past seventy. But, as it turns out, never marrying at all can also be healthy, and lifelong bachelor outlived those who remarried or got divorced.
Then there are more subtle things. Starting formal schooling too early - in other words, beginning first grade before the age of six - seemed to be a negative factor for mortality. Those kids who got sufficient playtime before starting school and were the right age to more easily relate to their classmates tended to live longer than those who started their education early. You can check out even more trends over at UC Riverside's report on the project.
What's the real takeaway from all this? According to Friedman, the psychological aspects of longevity outweigh the often needlessly specific health aspects, and he says people shouldn't get too worked up about always being the picture of perfect health:
"Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways. When we recognize the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximize the healthy patterns."
But perhaps there's another lesson from all this: the longest life isn't necessarily always going to be the most enjoyable one. I don't pretend to know which path you should choose, but neither sounds too terrible to me.