These 5 Life Skills Boost Well-Being as We Age, Study Finds

New study identifies 5 life skills that work in concert to promote well-being.

Posted Apr 11, 2017

Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle of University College London found that five life skills (conscientiousness, emotional stability, determination, control, and optimism) work in concert to promote health, wealth, and well-being in early and later life. 
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A new study identifies five specific “life skills” (conscientiousness, emotional stability, determination, control, and optimism) that increase someone’s odds of boosting his or her psychological, physical, and financial well-being across a lifespan.

The latest findings from Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London (UCL) show that these life skills are just as important in later life as they are in early life. Their new study, “Life Skills, Wealth, Health, and Wellbeing in Later Life,” was published online before print April 10 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For this study, Steptoe and Wardle honed in on the importance of these five life skills by studying data from 8,119 men and women aged 52 and older (with an average age of 66.7 years) who were participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).

In a statement to UCL, Steptoe said, "There is research on individual factors such as conscientiousness and optimism in adults, but the combinations of these life skills has not be studied very much before." The researchers consciously chose the term "life skills" as opposed to "character traits" to reinforce their belief that life skills are malleable throughout our lives, rather than "fixed" characteristics.

Acknowledging the plasticity of life skills echoes Carol Dweck's Stanford University research on the importance of "growth mindset" (as opposed to "fixed mindset") and reminds us that the explanatory styles and behaviors we use to approach daily life are never set in stone. New life skills can always be learned or trained.

Interestingly, the researchers also describe these life skills as “noncognitive” to distinguish them from cognitive abilities and intellectual capacity. Hopefully, presenting these five life skills as a bullet-pointed checklist can help people of all ages remember to keep these life skills consistently engaged and on the front burner.

Five Life Skills Linked to Health, Wealth, and Well-Being by Steptoe and Wardle

  • Conscientiousness: Rated on the four-item conscientiousness scale. 
  • Emotional stability: Rated on the six-item neuroticism scale. 
  • Persistence: Rated on questions about feeling determined and "grit."
  • Control: Rated on a statement about having control in most situations.
  • Optimism: Rated on two optimism items: “I feel that life is full of opportunities” and “I feel that the future looks good for me.”

Like truing the spokes on a bicycle wheel, the researchers found that no single attribute in the above list was especially important; rather, all five life skills worked in concert to create a smoother ride. Notably, the robustness of as many life skills as possible led to the best long-term outcomes.

Steptoe and Wardle found that these five life skills—conscientiousness, emotional stability, determination, control, and optimism—were associated with the following benefits:

The researchers were surprised by the extensive range of benefits that were correlated with the five aforementioned life skills. Although it's practically impossible to identify a specific causal link between certain life skills and overall well-being; Steptoe concludes, "Our research suggests that fostering and maintaining these skills in adult life may be relevant to health and well-being at older ages."

The Daily Athletic Process Reinforces the Core Tenets of Key Life Skills 

As an athlete and coach, I've observed that reinforcing the core tenets of a target "athletic mindset" through regular practice is key to a lifetime of success on and off the court, regardless of your age. Anecdotally, I can confirm that the daily commitment to begin and finish a cardio, strength training, and/or yoga workout that gently nudges against your personal limits promotes conscientiousness, emotional stability, determination, control, and optimism.

That being said: If you're looking for a practical way to reinforce the five life skills recently highlighted by Steptoe and Wardle, I'd recommend regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) as a terrific way to fortify these "noncognitive" life skills without overthinking the process. (For some free tips on how to automatically fine-tune your "athletic mindset" as a transferable skillset that can be applied to daily life, check out The Athlete's Way.) 


Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle. Life skills, wealth, health, and wellbeing in later life. PNAS 2017; published ahead of print April 10, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616011114