What’s the secret of longevity – yogurt consumption, diligent exercise or your married state?
Joking aside, it appears that the factors I mentioned above don’t make an adequate job of predicting who lives long and whose life will be cut short.
Instead, one personality trait – conscientiousness – appears to predict better than any other trait who will have a long life. Especially, if you were a prudent, dependable, well-organized and persistent child, the chances are good that you’ll have a long and productive life ahead of you.
Personally, I was fascinated to learn about the relationship between conscientiousness and longevity because I was born to and raised in a family of very conscientious people.
My grandfather Eero was an epitome of conscientiousness. He was born to a poor family in 1917, fought in two wars against the Soviet Union in the 40’s and after that he raised a family of three with his wife, working till he retired in 1980.
That wasn’t the end of his responsibilities though – after my grandmother was left half-paralyzed in 1987, my grand-dad took care of her until he died in 2008 at the age of 91. I first realized that he must be in a bad way just because my mother called and told me that my grandfather had felt too ill to make his daily visit to the nursing home to see my grandmother.
I don’t think he had ever skipped a day of visiting his wife.
I never heard him complain about having to nurse my grandmother or having to cook, clean, and take care of all the household chores. He did what he considered to be his responsibility.
I think my mother inherited the conscientiousness from her father. I and my sisters were raised to be good people. I was also a conscientious child, but I also have streak for recklessness and irresponsibility that was revealed later in life.
I learned about the relationship between conscientiousness and longevity in a book named the Longevity Project, written by Professor Howard Friedman and his colleague Leslie Martin.
Friedman and Martin investigate the factors that predict longevity. Friedman and Martin built their model using the data that was collected by Professor Terman earlier in the 20’th century. Terman collected data from a large group of Californian children born in the 1910’s, most of whom had died when Friedman started his longevity project.
If you think about it, it’s not very surprising that conscientious people live long.
Conscientious people are more likely to have a healthy lifestyle and have stable careers and marriages than people who are impulsive risk-takers. Also, conscientious persons are less likely to end up in bad company and also more likely to go to the doctor for checks and follow the instructions he’s given at the doctor’s office.
Of course in reality it’s never one single factor that determines whether you live long or not.
According to Friedman, people follow life paths (shaped by many factors) that may lead to longevity or “dead ends” like early violent death. It’s also possible to change your character – and your path – later in life, like did one of Terman’s participants. A boy named James, who rated very low in conscientiousness when he was 11, was one of the most conscientious participants when he was 30. He live a long and happy life.
On my part, I can recognize both good omens – like my conscientiousness – and worrying signs – like my disposition to depression – on my path. It’s yet too early to say yet whether I’m on the path to longevity or not.
My last living grandparent, my grandmother Kyllikki, died yesterday at the age of 91.