The right personality can add years to your life

It’s fair to say that everyone wants to live a longer life, but it’s even better to live a long and healthy life. Most people know what to do to achieve this goal, but they may not always follow the advice of their own inner guidelines. It’s all too easy to skip your early morning workout, snack on a donut during a coffee break, or enjoy an extra glass of wine during a particularly tasty meal. But perhaps you will practice what health experts preach and resist these temptations without any difficulty. Your eye is focused on the prize of a long and healthy life, a goal that you believe is within your control.

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Researchers in the field of behavioral medicine and health recognized decades ago that personality must be taken into account when understanding the factors that influence the adoption of a life-extending lifestyle. This field has its origins in the now classic, if imperfect, studies of the “Type A behavior pattern,” in which hard-working, impatient, achievement-oriented, and super-punctual individuals appeared to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than their normal counterparts. -back Type B counterparts. Researchers continue to delve into related personality and behavioral patterns, with the latest mention being ‘Type D’ (for distressed), which refers to people who suppress their negative emotions, compromising their recovery after a cardiovascular event. More generally, however, researchers are interested in the general personality traits or dispositions that can influence people’s health through lifestyle risk factors.

The latest research into the link between health and personality has addressed this issue by studying more than 131,000 individuals included in international samples of different cohorts from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Markus Jokela and colleagues (2019), from the University of Helsinki (Finland), based this powerful analysis of personality’s relationship with health outcomes on the Five-Factor Model of Personality, also known as the ‘OCEAN’ model: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. As the Finland-led team of researchers notes, previous evidence supports a link between individual differences in personality and – the ultimate measure of health – mortality risk. For example, people low in Conscientiousness have a 14% higher mortality rate because their low self-control, lack of planning, and general irresponsibility “lead to unhealthy life choices and risk-taking” (p. 1). There are weaker associations for the other four factors, but all are in the expected direction.

Despite the fact that mortality risks are now relatively well documented, Jokela and his fellow researchers believe there is room for improvement by quantifying the relationships with personality using life expectancy, an ‘absolute population measure’. In other words, mortality rates may be affected by the age of the samples, but life expectancy takes age (a risk factor for mortality) into account. Moreover, as the authors note, mortality or even life expectancy only tells part of the story. You don’t just want to grow old, you want to live without illness and disability. “Longevity is valuable, but a healthy and fully functional long life is even more valuable” (p. 2), as they very astutely state. To connect the links between personality, life expectancy, and disability-free years, Jokela and his fellow researchers had to take a longitudinal approach, examining the long-term outcomes associated with basic measures of personality. Because the longest follow-up occurred 22 years later (mean 7.2 years), these outcomes, among survivors, included measures of activities of daily living (ADL) as an assessment of disability status. The researchers correlated baseline with mortality data over the progressive years of the study.

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With these extensive data sets at their disposal, the research team was able to conduct survival analyses, predicting both mortality and disability status based on baseline personality scores. As you might expect, the researchers also had to take into account lifestyle factors such as heavy alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, body mass index and education in the link between personality, mortality and disability.

Key findings from the survival analyzes support the role of personality on life expectancy and disability-free years and support the role of personality as an influence on life expectancy and, just as importantly, on healthy life expectancy. Individuals who had the very lowest scores on conscientiousness at baseline lived an average of six years less than their more careful and fastidious counterparts, and also suffered more from disability during the last two years of their lives. As we moved up the Conscientiousness scale, each increase in this trait was associated with longer life expectancy and fewer years of disability.

Looking at the entire population, the authors also concluded that if everyone in their respective countries had high levels of conscientiousness, the life expectancy of the average population would have been 1.3 years longer; More importantly, most of that time (a year) would be spent without restrictions. The other personality trait that emerged as a predictor of healthy years of life was neuroticism, but only for those at the extreme end of the scale.

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What about those lifestyle factors? It turned out that 25% of the effect of Conscientiousness on life expectancy could be explained by the three factors of smoking, body mass index and low physical activity. The bad news is that if you resign yourself to a lifestyle slacker, your life will be shorter and more fraught with disability. The downside, however, is that if you can force yourself to adopt healthy habits, you can partially offset what would otherwise be detrimental to your well-being and longevity. As the authors concluded, “we hypothesize that multiple health risks and risky behaviors accumulate at the bottom of the Conscientiousness distribution” (p. 8). For those at the higher end of the Neuroticism scale, the authors suggest that “severe mental disorders may be one of the mediating mechanisms” leading to fewer disability-free years (p. 8), as people with these disorders appear to be worse off. physical and mental health.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question of causality and whether the factors associated with lower life expectancy are determined by personality, or whether poorer health habits lead to negative personality changes. However, the authors were able to rule out disability as the cause of personality changes by conducting a series of backward comparisons of those who lived and those who died. What remains unanswered is whether a common genetic or environmental factor is the cause of both poorer health and shorter life expectancy and less adaptive personality traits, a question that will need to be answered in future research.

Personality essential reading

To sum upRegardless of the direction of causality, the findings clearly emphasize the importance of maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. You may feel that your personality is what it is and cannot be changed. Therefore, you are doomed to develop life-threatening health problems depending on where you are on the Conscientiousness and Neuroticism continuums. However, knowing that you can compensate for a high-risk personality by making various lifestyle changes should give you the motivation you need to live a longer, more fulfilling life.

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Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock


Jokela, M, Airaksinen, J, Virtanen, M, Batty, GD, Kivimäki, M, Hakulinen, C. Personality, years of life without disability and life expectancy: individual participant meta-analysis of 131,195 individuals from 10 cohort studies. Journal of Personality. 2019; 00:1–10.

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