Secrets to a long and fulfilling life

Judith Kleinfeld

Paul was a highly sociable fellow -- well-liked, optimistic and cheerful. As a fifth-grader, his grades were good but his teacher described him as more interested in social activities than his lessons. He loved to joke and was happiest when working in a group.

Patricia, on the other hand, was not popular or sociable but instead highly conscientious. Her parents had divorced, which creates many health risks for their children, even when they become adults. But Patricia was conscientious -- prudent and careful.

Patricia lived into her 90s, but Paul died young.

Paul and Patricia were members of an extraordinary study, which began in 1921 and has lasted for 80 years. More than 1,500 children were selected by psychologist Lewis Terman because they had potential and then followed throughout their lives.

Most of the "termites" as they are called, have passed away. Psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin located their death certificates to throw light on a question that concerns us all: How can we increase our chances for living a long and fulfilling life?

Sociable children like Paul, it turns out, have no advantage when it comes to long life.

"One of the biggest bombshells of our entire project," write Friedman and Martin, in their book "The Longevity Project," was that "cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts."

Conscientiousness, on the other hand, turns out to be important to long life. First, conscientious individuals are more apt to do things that protected their health and they engaged in fewer risky activities. They are more apt to wear seat belts, for example, and to follow their doctor's recommendations.

Second, some people are biologically more apt to be both conscientious and disease resistant. This is a surprise. The conscientious have higher levels of serotonin in their brains, a neurotransmitter that controls impulsivity and regulates many physical processes like eating and sleeping.

Third, conscientious people find their way to happier marriages, solid friendships, and good work situations. They create healthy lifelong pathways.

Many of our beliefs about what leads to long life, turn out to be myths.

1. "The best of men cannot suspend their fate: The good die early, and the bad die late." Quite the contrary, the most agreeable, thoughtful, and helpful people had longer and more fulfilling lives. As the researchers put it: "The bad died early and the good do great." But, of course, not always.

2. "Get married and you will live longer." Married people enjoy a "buddy system." Their partners help them in an emergency, insist that they take their medications, advocate for them when they are hospitalized, and catch medical errors. Partners also protect people from stress. When you come home from work, your partner is apt to listen to problems and relax you. But oddly enough, marriage was linked to a long and fulfilling life more for men than women. The steadily married men were far apt to live into their seventies and beyond but only about a third of the divorced men lived long lives.

3. "Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to long life." Too much optimism makes people surprised and disheartened when they face inevitable hardships. Worrying can play a helpful role when there is something realistic to worry about. On the other hand, people who "catastrophized" -- the Chicken Littles who believed that the sky is falling -- died sooner, especially the men. They saw misfortune as their own fault and felt that their troubles were never going to go away.

4. "Religious people live longer so be sure to go to religious services." Religious people do tend to live happier and longer lives but just going to religious services didn't make the difference. The key was the social support religion offered and the opportunities to help others. Catastrophes can happen. Biology matters, although a lot less than most people think. But those people who were conscientious, created social support, helped others, and selected a lifeway that fit their personalities were far often able to "make their own luck" and live long and satisfying lives.

Judith Kleinfeld holds a doctorate from Harvard and is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld