Worrying is good for your health. Optimism is overrated. Women thrive post-divorce (men don’t). These are just a few of the unexpected findings that psychologist Howard Friedman explores in The Longevity Project, a new book based on a groundbreaking eight-decade study on the secrets to long life.
For their research, Friedman and fellow researcher Leslie Martin mined data that had initially been collected by psychologist Lewis Terman, who famously followed the lives of hundreds of boys and girls in California from their childhood in the 1920s through death. Friedman and Martin spun the data forward by looking for behavioral and psychological attributes that relate to longevity.
In a Q&A conducted by email, Friedman discusses some of the study’s most controversial findings, the need for a paradigm shift when it comes to health and why conscientiousness is the key to long life.
Why did you want to do this massive study on longevity?
I wanted to see if I could scientifically confirm what we all intuitively believed — that some people face more illness and greater likelihood of early death, in ways that go beyond chance. That is, who gets sick and who stays well? Which personalities, which work patterns, which social relationships and which worldviews?
The existing explanations of the 1970s and 1980s were clearly weak and flawed. I knew that one of the best ways to avoid research traps and biases is to follow individuals for their whole lives and see which characteristics influence subsequent qualities, behaviors and outcomes. No one had ever done this before, and I saw this as a unique scientific opportunity. (More on Time.com: How Being a Jerk Shortens Your Life)
Why did you focus on longevity instead of well-being or quality of life?
Longevity is not distorted by self-report. If you are dead, we can be quite sure that you have an extremely low quality of life. Further, an important but often overlooked fact is that those who live longer are also generally healthier throughout their lives. Most people who live to old age do so not because they have beaten cancer, heart disease and diabetes; rather, the long-lived have mostly avoided serious ailments altogether. That’s why when public health agencies want to assess the overall health of a given country or state, they always start with average life expectancy.
How important is conscientiousness to long life?
Unexpectedly, in both childhood and adulthood, conscientiousness turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life! This is a strong effect, comparable to the effects of systolic blood pressure or cholesterol on longevity.
Why do the conscientious stay healthier and live longer? First and most obviously, they are less likely to smoke, drink to excess, abuse drugs or drive too fast. They are more likely to wear seatbelts and follow doctors’ orders.
The most intriguing reason why conscientious people live longer is that having a conscientious personality leads you into healthier situations and relationships. In other words, conscientious people find their way to happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work situations. They help create healthy, long- life pathways for themselves. This is a new way of thinking about health. (More on Time.com: The Key to Health, Wealth and Success: Self-Control)
Your research delves into the relationship between work and longevity. Could you explain some of the more unexpected lessons you found about hard work?
Our results clearly showed that those who were highly motivated and worked the hardest, steadily advanced in their careers and achieved most career success lived the longest. They didn’t work themselves to death; they worked themselves to life. It was not at all the case that hard work was unhealthy, and it was not at all true that the long-lived led uninteresting lives. Many statistical analyses revealed that the long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work for fear that the stress of it would lead to an early demise.
You also had some other counterintuitive insights — that optimism is overrated and worrying is OK. Could you get into these?
One of the biggest bombshells of our entire project: cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts! Likewise, in adulthood, ambition was not a problem and taking it easy was not healthy. In fact, those who were carefree, undependable, unambitious in childhood and were unsuccessful in their careers had a whopping increase in their mortality risk.
Many of the participants were something of a worrier throughout their life. But it turned out that these concerns prompted them to take better care of their health, especially among the men, and especially after challenges like the deaths of their wives. Particularly for those with no close family member to urge them in the right direction (and especially for men), neurotic tendencies promoted longevity.
Any interesting findings regarding relationships or marriage?
One common myth that we busted is the idea that, if you believe that you are very loved and cared for, then you are definitely on the road to good health and long life. Although social relations and good ties to others were very important to staying healthy, feeling cared for wasn’t crucial. Rather, the participants who had lots of other people in their lives — friends, family or co-workers — stayed healthier, and this effect was increased if they volunteered and got involved in helping others.
Helping and loving others is more important to health than feeling helped and loved oneself. Sounds philosophical but turned out to be scientific fact. (More on Time.com: Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends)
Any notable differences between men and women when it comes to marriage or divorce?
Men who were suited for marriage and entered a long, satisfying marriage did live especially long. But men who got and stayed divorced or who remarried and divorced again, saw their risk of dying skyrocket.
But women who got divorced, often leaving a bad marriage, tended to thrive, as did single women! In fact, even widowed women often did unexpectedly well. Why? Women were able to rely on other friends, whereas many men depended on their wives for their social networks and so were devastated when they lost these ties. (More on Time.com: How the New Science of Adult Attachment Can Improve Your Love Life)
Since the research is ongoing, what else are you investigating?
We are looking at many other patterns across the years, such as physical activity, sleep, marriage quality, and combinations of personality with social situations. But I am also trying to deepen our understanding of what it means to be healthy.
Health is more than the absence of disease. The implicit view is that most individuals will naturally stay healthy, but if by chance they get sick, then well-trained physicians should be available to treat them. My many years of study of the Terman participants have led to a different conclusion. Our studies suggest that a society with more conscientious goal-oriented citizens who are well-integrated into their communities is likely to be a society of health and long life.
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