It’s almost impossible to pull off a study like this: follow people from childhood to old age, tracking their habits and personalities to see which are best for health over the long haul. Almost impossible, but not quite. The Longevity Project, by psychologists Howard S. Friedman, PhD, and Leslie R. Martin, PhD, distills life-extending advice from a study that began in 1921 and followed 1,500 boys and girls for as long as eight decades. “The best way to see why some people thrive in old age while others die early is to follow individuals for their whole lives,” Friedman says. The results poked holes in many long-held beliefs. Here, Friedman shares the study’s biggest surprises—and most useful advice.
Flash doesn’t last. “The key personality predictor of a long life was one that we never expected: conscientiousness. It wasn’t always the cheerful kids who went on to have the longest lives—it was the ones who did their homework, whose parents would say, ‘She has a good head on her shoulders.’ They developed healthy patterns and maintained them. People who weren’t dependable as kids but became more responsible as adults did well, too.”
Happiness is a result, not a cause. “It’s well-established that happy people are healthier. People assume that happiness leads them to be healthier, but we didn’t find that. Having a job you feel engaged in; a good education; a good, stable relationship; being involved with other people—those things cause health and happiness.”
Stress isn’t so bad. “You’re always hearing about the dangers of stress, but the people who were the most involved and dedicated to accomplishing things—they stayed healthiest and lived longest. It’s not good if you’re overwhelmed by stress, but the people who thrived were the ones who didn’t try to relax or retire early but who took on challenges and were persistent.”
Run with the right crowd. “To make yourself healthier, the best thing you can do is to think about the kinds of people you spend time with. If you’re involved with the kind of people who help other people, you get more dependable yourself—you have a reason to get up in the morning, so you’re not out drinking late at night. One of the secrets of longevity is to join social groups and choose hobbies or jobs that lead you naturally to healthier patterns and activities. That’s a gradual but effective way to change yourself.”