What Is the One Essential Key to Long Life?

Excessive optimism does not pave the path to longevity.

Posted Mar 23, 2011

 Maxpixel, CC0
Source: Source: Maxpixel, CC0

If you desire to live a long, healthy life, you will be interested in the research results described in The Longevity Project by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. 

According to the authors, there are some things, however valuable in other ways, which do NOT lead to longevity:

  • Taking life easy—being carefree.  (Carefree people often don't pay attention to health matters.)
  • A sociable personality.  (Extroverts are more likely to cave in to social pressures toward drinking and smoking.) 
  • Cheerfulness and excessive optimism. (Rose-colored glasses make real threats harder to see.)

If you were searching for the fountain of youthful old age, where would you look? Friedman and Martin's springboard was an eight-decade study--the Terman study, initiated by psych researcher Lewis Terman in the 1920s.  The authors mined mounds of data that had been accumulated from Terman's 1500+ subjects who had been studied from childhood to old age and death.  They also re-analyzed the data using modern research methods and the results of other long-term studies.

So, what was the one factor that turned out to be the main highway to longevity? As an avid reader of health and psychology news, even I was surprised at the answer.  It turns out to be a personality trait rather than a particular behavior.  Can you guess what it is?

The surprising answer is: Conscientiousness.  Conscientious people are dependable, hard-working, persistent, and well-organized—even a little obsessive.  Amazingly, conscientiousness was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, AND it was also the best predictor of longevity when measured in adulthood.  As the authors point out, good people DON'T die young, despite what Billy Joel sings in his alluring song.  Virtue is not just its own reward--you get long life as well.  This is a satisfying result.

Now that I've revealed the answer, it seems so obvious.  Of course conscientious people would live longer!  As the authors point out, they are more likely to take actions to protect their health, and they engage in fewer risky activities: "They are less likely to smoke, drink to excess, abuse drugs, or drive too fast.  They are more likely to wear seat belts and follow doctors' orders." (15-16)  Every day they make decisions that keep them on a healthy life path.

Plus, conscientious people are drawn to other conscientious people.  Their personality leads them into healthier relationships and situations, including happier marriages, good friendships, and healthy work situations.   

The researchers found other predictors of long life as well.  People who are probably destined for a long life do these things:

  • Connect with others. 
  • Associate with healthy people.
  • Develop healthy habits.
  • Help others.
  • Stay physically active throughout life.
  • Are moderate worriers, but not catastrophizers.

There's much more. The Longevity Project also asks and answers numerous burning questions, like these:  Does playing with a pet help you live longer?  Does extreme exercise like running help?  Do religious people really live longer?  Does marriage contribute to long life?  For the detailed answers, read this fascinating and enjoyable book!

What does all this mean for you?  There are many lessons in The Longevity Project, but there's one especially to take to heart. To live a long life, become the kind of conscientious person you would want as your own best friend. 

(c) Meg Selig.  All rights reserved.

Source:  Friedman, H.S. and Martin, L.R. The Longevity Project (2011). NY: Hudson Street Press.

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

More Posts