How to Live a Long, Healthy Life

In 1921, prominent Stanford University professor Lewis Terman began a study of 1,500 bright boys and girls, monitoring their social, psychological, and physical characteristics. Little did he know that eight decades later, data from this study -- the first to follow a group of Americans from childhood to death -- would be able to teach us fascinating lessons about who lives a long, healthy life and why.

Health psychologists Dr. Howard Friedman and Dr. Leslie Martin chronicle and interpret the findings from Terman's monumental, almost century-long study in their new book, "The Longevity Project," and their conclusions may surprise you.

Is longevity associated with working hard, being married, daily jogs, or social interaction? Here, doctors Friedman and Martin debunk some common health myths and reveal the one personality trait all those who live long, healthy lives have in common.

You'll Work Yourself to Death
Though you may often hear that people should relax, take it easy, and not stress too much, research proves otherwise: People who worked the hardest actually lived the longest, even those with stressful jobs. Being engaged and motivated helps keep you alive, while taking it easy tends to break your ties with other people -- a longevity no-no.

Don't Worry Yourself Sick
Contrary to popular belief, people who worry actually live longer than those who don't. A healthy dose of concern about the future makes people more likely to be diligent about their health and take better overall care of themselves.

Outgoing People Thrive
Americans tend to view sociability and extroversion as desirable qualities and worry about children who are shy, but this widely held assumption is flawed; being very sociable is sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful. Having an optimistic outlook is a good thing for overcoming crisis, but as a general life approach, it can cause people to put themselves in harm's way because they simply do not see risks as clearly as more introverted folks who are prone to caution. And parents of shy children can relax: Kids who are more cheerful or happy-go-lucky do not, for the most part, live any longer than their more introverted classmates.

Marriage Makes Everything Better
The correlation between marriage and long life is interestingly split between the sexes: While those in happy marriages do often live longer, there is little, if any, general advantage for married women. Women who stay single live almost as long and as healthily as those who are steadily married, and divorced women who remarry are in fact not helping themselves much in terms of longevity. Men, on the other hand, definitely benefit from marriage: Fewer than a third of the divorced men studied reached old age.

Jocks Outlive Nerds
There is no question that regular physical exercise is good for your heart, but if you are athletic when you are young and then gradually become -- and stay -- sedentary in middle age, you lose any longevity benefit. Remember that exercise doesn't have to be intense (like long distance running) to be effective; what is important is that you find physical activities that suit you and stick with them over time.

Carefree Is the Way to Be
Friedman and Martin's analysis clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness. Conscientious people are prudent, persistent, well-organized, somewhat obsessive, not at all carefree, and these characteristics prove monumentally beneficial over a lifetime. All of these character traits cause conscientious individuals to develop healthy habits, take care of themselves, and engage in fewer risky activities, such as driving too fast, drinking, or smoking. Conscientious people also tend to make their own luck: Not only do they have healthier habits and brains, but they also find their own way to happier marriages, better friendships, and more optimal work situations.

Test your level of conscientiousness by taking The Longevity Quiz: How Conscientious Are You?

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