Is Neurosis the New Optimism?

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Recent research suggests that there's a good reason why Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison were so healthy. Conscientiousness is tied to longer life.

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Benjamin Franklin, who lived to 85 (above average even now) would have been proud of the latest findings of social science as reviewed in The New York Times, emphasizing conscientiousness rather than a positive mental outlook as a predictor of long life:

"If you're cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don't consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, then those setbacks are harder to deal with," [coauthor] Dr. [Leslie R.] Martin said. "If you're one of those people who think everything's fine -- 'no need to back up those computer files' -- the stress of failure, because you haven't been more careful, is harmful. You almost set yourself up for more problems."

Call it Poor Richard's revenge? As a group, America's Founders lived to impressive ages, above average for white males even in the 21st century: John Adams lived to 91, James Madison to 85, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, and John Jay to 83, Samuel Adams to 81. Alexander Hamilton gets an obvious asterisk, but Aaron Burr survived to 80. Considering George Washington's illnesses and treatments, the miracle is that he made it to 67. By the nature of their enterprise, the founding generation experienced setbacks and developed impressive personal networks -- editing Jefferson's 50,000 letters sent and received will probably take as long as Jefferson actually lived! -- of the kind that the study also suggests increase one's lifespan.

The real downer of the present study is that mysterious biological factors rear their head:

[S]ome people are biologically predisposed to be not only more conscientiousness but also healthier. "Not only do they tend to avoid violent deaths and illnesses linked to smoking and drinking," [the authors] write, "but conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits." The precise physiological explanation is unknown but seems to have to do with levels of chemicals like serotonin in the brain.

Longitudinal studies of a generation, powerful as they can be, raise a question not addressed in the review. Some things about people may not change, but their social environment does. The Terman cohort were of college-senior age at the beginning of the Great Depression; the Harvard men studied by George Vaillant were about a decade older. The founders of both studies had ideological biases of their own time. Lewis Terman was a strict hereditarian who clashed with even with the patrician guru Walter Lippmann about IQ. Children selected for his project were aware they were part of an elite cadre. With a fine disregard for scientific objectivity, Terman sometimes intervened to help subjects in trouble to realize their potential, saving the future Hollywood director Edward Dmytryk from an abusive and impoverished household. And there's evidence of a Pygmalion effect, the self-confidence that at least some study members drew from their membership in the elite group. The former director of NASA Ames laboratory was interviewed by Stanford Magazine in 2000:

Several times during his career, he mentally invoked Terman to shore up his self-image. "Research is a strange business -- in a sense, you're out there alone," he says. "Sometimes, the problems got so complex I would ask myself, Am I up to this? Then I would think, Dr. Terman thought I was."

That's no argument against longitudinal studies. To the contrary, It's good to know that science can have unintended positive consequences.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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