High Levels of This ‘Big 5’ Personality Trait Can Help You Live Longer—Here’s How
One of the 'Big 5' personality traits, conscientiousness essentially means being on top of your stuff. In other words? “Conscientiousness describes the tendency to be hardworking, orderly, responsible to others, self-controlled, and rule-abiding,” says industrial psychologist Deniz Ones, PhD, whose research explores the impact of personality traits on workplace success.
“Conscientiousness describes the tendency to be hardworking, orderly, responsible to others, self-controlled, and rule-abiding.”—Deniz Ones, PhD, industrial psychologist
In practice, the more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to do the right thing in any situation: Conscientiousness is the voice inside your head telling you to work hard, exercise, stick to your calendar, and show up to appointments on time, says personality psychologist Brent W. Roberts, PhD. And the louder that voice is—or the more conscientious you are—the likelier you are to live a long life, according to a wide body of research dating back to a landmark 1993 study conducted by psychologist Howard S. Friedman, PhD, co-author of The Longevity Project. Tracking health outcomes over seven decades for a group of 1,178 people, he and his team were the first to prove a link between conscientiousness and longevity: The people with high conscientiousness as kids were 30 percent less likely to die at any year in their adulthood, in comparison to those with low conscientiousness.
Why is conscientiousness such a boon for longevity?
Because longevity is multifaceted, it’s helpful to think in terms of broad life trajectories, says psychologist Leslie R. Martin, PhD, who studies psychosocial risk factors of mortality and co-authored The Longevity Project with Dr. Friedman. “Because people who are higher in conscientiousness are more thoughtful, cautious, organized, and diligent, they’re also more likely to make good choices [for their health] and find environments in which others are making similarly good choices appealing,” she says. That general tendency creates a few key pathways linking conscientiousness and longevity, outlined below.
1. Conscientious people tend to develop health-supportive habits
Highly conscientious folks tend to do things that protect their health while avoiding the things that put it at risk. Specifically, they’re less likely to smoke or use substances than their less-conscientious peers, and they have better sleep habits, says Dr. Friedman, who conducted the original 1993 study on the topic. “Conscientious people are also more likely to cooperate with medical treatments and advice,” he adds, which can set them up better to avoid complications from chronic conditions later in life.
Much of that drive to uphold good habits among conscientious folks can be tied to industriousness, a specific facet of conscientiousness that was associated with a 25-percent lower risk of mortality in a 2019 study tracking about 11,000 people over 7 years. “One potential reason for that is, it takes high energy to be industrious,” says Dr. Roberts. “And that may serve as a reservoir of protection against the kinds of health issues that lead to premature mortality.”
2. The more conscientious you are, the more you’re bound to thrive at work
Regardless of the type of job they might hold, conscientious folks are better set up for success in their careers than their less conscientious counterparts. “In fact, many of the qualities that make a person successful—diligence, hard work, organization—are the same characteristics that define conscientiousness,” says Dr. Martin.
In Dr. Ones’ research on conscientiousness in the workplace, she’s found that the trait's upsides can be explained, in large part, by conscientious peoples’ motivation to pursue different types of goals and ability to self-regulate in order to avoid counterproductive distractions. “Being able to prioritize well is a core part of conscientiousness,” she says. “Conscientious people know how to persist and persevere [in the face of difficulty].” And in doing so, they're poised for the kind of career security and growth that serve as independent predictors of longevity.
3. Being conscientious can lead you to supportive relationships
Across the board, conscientious people are more likely to hang out with other conscientious people, and that creates a positive conscientious bubble, wherein everyone is reinforcing one another's health-supportive behaviors.
“Whether at prosocial communal groups, religious services, or community services to help others, conscientious individuals tend to maintain stronger social networks with other healthy, positive people,” says Dr. Friedman. And within romantic relationships, the same type of thing applies, he adds: Conscientious people tend to get married to people with similar values, and build stable, satisfying partnerships—which are known to boost longevity.
4. Conscientiousness helps with stress management
From the outset, conscientious people are less likely to experience many of the biggest stressors in life, says philosopher John Maier, PhD. And that’s because of the very habits noted above: At least in non-pandemic times, being prudent about your health tends to reduce the risk of an unexpected or major health event; doing well at work can keep you from losing your job; and committing to a conscientious person can make you likelier to avoid divorce.
But even when stress does rear its ugly head—as it's bound to do at some point for even the most conscientious person—the trait may help with managing it. A 2011 study found that conscientious people were better at handling daily stressors with a problem-solution style of coping than their less-conscientious peers. Paired with the fact that they may experience less stress overall, this just means conscientious folks have a better buffer against the negative health outcomes driven by stress itself. And that alone is another key factor helping to extend their lifetimes.
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