Want to live for a long time? Cut out the jokes, worry a lot and work hard.
It’s a common perception that having a happy-go-luckyattitude to the world will lead to a long life. But a 20-year study has revealed that precisely the opposite is true.
Researchers at the University of California, Riverside worked with data from a Stanford University study on more than 1,500 bright children who were about 10 years old when they were first studied in 1921.
“Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one’s risk of dying decades later,” says psychology professor Howard Friedman.
The Longevity Project followed the children through their lives, collecting family histories and relationships, teacher and parent ratings of personality, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service and numerous other details.
“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,” says Friedman.
“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.”
And what the team found, surprisingly, was that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest.
Part of the explanation lies in health behaviors, says Friedman – the cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years. Prudence and persistence, however, brought important benefits.
The team also found that marriage is good for men’s health, but doesn’t make much difference for women. Being divorced, too, is much less harmful to women’s health. People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being, but it doesn’t help them live longer.
People who were the most involved and committed to their jobs did the best. Continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades.
“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,” says Friedman.
“When we recognize the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximize the healthy patterns.”