Why do we think longevity so natural and right? In part, I think, it’s because we think of it as the byproduct of living well: We like to think the traits that make life sweet are those that make it long. But this long-term study of longevity over decades suggests that’s not so. Over 20 years, Howard S. Friedman, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues studied 1,500 “gifted” children identified in 1921 by Louis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford. Friedman’s team looked at the lifetime data on these kids, who were about ten when first identified—their relationships, their personalities (as reported by teachers and parents) educations, work history and so on.
Of course, some of the kids in the study were more cheerful and optimistic than others. Some had better sense of humor. On average, they died sooner. Similarly, people who seemed happy-go-lucky and didn’t stress about work also died at younger ages. And people who reported they felt loved and cared for? Also less likely to life longer. Friedman et al. believe the sunnier people were too cheerful for the long haul—expecting things to work out, they took too many risks.
Who did that leave to win the longevity sweepstakes? As the Publisher’s Weekly review put it, “If there’s a secret to old age, the authors find, it’s living conscientiously and bringing forethought, planning, and perseverance to one’s professional and personal life.”
In other words, if you want to live long, you’re better off being a bit of a buzzkill, with a touch of the bore. Plod along, don’t stand out, eat your peas, get your mammogram and count your pennies. Society needs such people, for sure. But in a choice between an MP3 of Amy Winehouse singing and one of these citizens discussing their tax strategy, I’ll take the late Ms. Winehouse, thank you. Society benefits from people with the charm, joy in the moment, monomaniacal dedication and lack of interest in self-preservation that seem to make for a shorter life. We don’t all need to make old bones.