How Personality Traits Can Make for a Longer Life Expectancy

Researchers Asked, Do Conscientious People Live Longer?

Organization
Organization is a trait that may affect on life expectancy. Nick Koudis/Getty Images

A person's life expectancy is dependent on many factors. Most research around life expectancy looks at factors that reduce your life expectancy, like smoking. While researching the elements that can reduce life expectancy is important work, it is just as important to learn about the behaviors that can make a positive impact on life expectancy. Unfortunately, few studies look at factors that can increase life expectancy, and even less that shed light on those over which you have some control.

The following discusses one study that does.

Positive Personality Traits and Life Expectancy

In a study published in Health Psychology (the official journal of the health psychology division of the American Psychological Association) in 2008, researchers wanted to know if positive personality traits had any meaningful impact on life expectancy. While research has shown that negative personality traits (like anxiety or stress) can impact life expectancy by reducing the number of years a person lives, what about positive traits? Could a person’s personality alone predict life expectancy?

A Scientific Look at Conscientiousness 

In the study, researchers used a personality test that measures the trait of conscientiousness. In order to better characterize the trait, they effectively broke the concept of conscientiousness down into three subcategories: self-control, organization, and industriousness.

They theorized that people who scored strongly in these categories would, essentially, lead healthier lives.

Conscientious people, they figured, are more likely to take care of themselves, get a good education, have a good job, and be in a good marriage among other factors that impact life expectancy.

Though all of these factors have individually been shown to positively affect life expectancy, they are notably hard to measure. For instance, questions like “how good is your marriage?” are difficult to answer and compare. These researchers wondered if they could measure personality instead, then life expectancy could be better predicted from that more quantifiable data.

Organization and Industriousness are Winners for Life Expectancy

People who scored high in conscientiousness lived an average of 2 to 4 years longer than their less conscientious counterparts. Researchers found this out by comparing data from more than 20 studies. The total number of people in the combined analysis was over 8,900. In part, they found what they expected: that conscientious people were less likely to be smokers and more likely to have stable jobs and marriages. But perhaps the most interesting of the results was the fact that the traits that proved to be the most important elements of conscientiousness were organization and industriousness.

Other Notable Personality Traits That Helped Life Expectancy

Though organization and industriousness came out on top, they also found that the following traits seemed to increase life expectancy: thoroughness, reliability, deliberation, competence, and dutifulness. While interesting, the research did not provide enough data to conclude that all the these traits are definitely linked to longer life expectancy.

What the Medical and Psychological Community Says

Kern and Friedman's 2008 conscientiousness study certainly provided some positive and interesting results, and it is not the only one. In fact, several studies have come to similar conclusions about the effects of certain personality traits on health, which can be a defining factor in a person's life expectancy. For instance, in a study leading up to Friedman and Kern's 2008 findings, Friedman and several other colleagues concluded that personality traits and concepts like conscientiousness can have utility in the understanding of health and morbidity. In another follow-up study in 2009, Friedman and Kern returned with results that pointed to a positive relationship between conscientiousness, career success, and longevity.

How to Become More Conscientious

In the study, the researchers noted that people can, in fact, increase their level of conscientiousness. This change tends to naturally occur after a major life event, like a marriage or a new job. In general, people’s level on conscientiousness is stable over time, meaning that people don’t generally change from being conscientious to not conscientious and then back again.

But I’m not convinced that an individual can’t change. I think that, if you wanted to, you could become more conscientious. Though you may not naturally be inclined to traits like industriousness or organization, you can make a conscious effort to build on the habits that are associated with those traits. That is not to say that you won't need to put forth a good bit of effort, but the payoff appears to be well worth it. Think about how you can work on and develop the healthy personality traits in this study. Just pick one and try your best to improve. See what happens. It may sound boring to be “conscientious” all the time, but four more years of life might just be worth it.

Sources:

Kern, Margaret L.; Friedman, Howard S. Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Health Psychology. Vol 27(5), Sep 2008, 505-512.

Kern, Margaret L., Howard S. Friedman, Leslie R. Martin, Chandra A. Reynolds, and Gloria Luong. "Conscientiousness, Career Success, and Longevity: A Lifespan Analysis." Annals of Behavioral Medicine Ann. Behav. Med. 37.2 (2009): 154-63. 

Martin, Leslie R., Howard S. Friedman, and Joseph E. Schwartz. "Personality and Mortality Risk across the Life Span: The Importance of Conscientiousness as a Biopsychosocial Attribute." Health Psychology26.4 (2007): 428-36.

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