Can the field of psychology help us to extend our lives? Specifically are there certain personality traits that have a positive correlation to living a longer life? As it turns out the answer is YES. One might guess things such as being worry free, optimistic, or having a cheerful demeanor might lead to a long life. This would be inaccurate however. As it turns out there is substantial evidence that one particular personality trait translates into a longer life.
In 1921, Stanford psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman began a study to find out if being intelligent as a child translated into success later in life. He selected 1,500 intelligent high performing children, all around the age of 10, and began gathering detailed information on them related to nearly every aspect of their lives. He documented things such as their beliefs, their family life, their hobbies, their attitudes, and many other variables. In addition, he used the best available psychological assessments to understand the personalities of these children.
Terman himself passed away in 1951 but his associates continued the work that he started. Eventually through the diligence of Terman’s cohorts, an unprecedented body of data would emerge on 1500 individuals over the course of 80 years.
In 1990 psychologists, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin would attempt to excavate this treasure trove of data looking for answers to human longevity. Eventually they would publish the book, “The Longevity Project.”
Perhaps the most well regarded personality test in all of psychology is known as “The Big Five.” According to this test, there are five broad dimensions to human personality. The acronym OCEAN is used to remember the five dimensions. They are:
- Openness: How open are we to new experiences and ideas as opposed to being rigid and resistant to change?
- Conscientiousness: How organized, responsible, dependable, and careful are we as opposed to being carefree, risk-taking, and disorganized.
- Extroversion: How outgoing, gregarious, and social-minded are we as opposed to being solitary? Do we get our energy from outside of ourselves or from within?
- Agreeableness: How kind, friendly, and compassionate are we as opposed to being aloof, skeptical or even suspicious of others.
- Neuroticism: How much of a worrier or prone to anxiety are we as opposed to being calm, and emotionally stable.
When Freedman and Martin concluded their nearly 20-year study of the data collected by Dr. Terman and others one personality trait clearly emerged as the most significant to living a long life. That trait was conscientiousness.
"Conscientiousness is one trait of the five-factor model of personality, and is manifested in characteristic behaviors such as being efficient, organized, neat, and systematic. It includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, self-organization, deliberation (the tendency to think carefully before acting), and need for achievement." Wikipedia
One of the biggest reasons that conscientious was so important is that people who are conscientious are more likely to see a doctor regularly. They are also more likely to follow doctor’s orders and to follow-up. Conscientious people obey rules, and are much less likely to engage in risky or reckless behaviors such as smoking, speeding, or driving without a seat belt. Conscientious people are careful people.
"The best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness, the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well organized person. Conscientiousness also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood. It was not cheerfulness and it was not having a sociable personality that predicted long life” Drs. Friedman and Martin
The study disproved the conventional wisdom of, “Take it easy; don’t worry, don't work so hard, and you will stay healthier." As it turns out worry can be good for us, since it usually emboldens us to take some type of action.
The other reason that conscientiousness seems to lead to a longer life is that having a conscientious personality will generally lead people into healthier situations and better relationships. Conscientious people were found to have happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work environments.
You can take an interactive 60-question test that is designed to measure you degree of conscientiousness. When you're done, you'll be presented with personalized feedback about how conscientious you are and how your scores compare to those of others who have completed this test. The test takes about 8 minutes to complete. Take the online conscientiousness assessment.
Source material: The Longevity Project, 2011; NPR.org; Wikipedia