The Kind of Stress That Doesn't Kill You, but Makes You Stronger

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Digging into an eight-decade landmark study on longevity, the author finds that stress brought on by hard work can keep you happy and healthy.

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More than a half century after Dr. Terman collected his data on work and occupational success, we looked into the long-term consequences on health and longevity. Would Paul's easygoing, free-flowing approach to his career as a bookstore manager be a benefit or a curse? Would John's dedication to physics lead to a stressful but long life like that of fellow physicist Norris Bradbury, or was Bradbury's very long life an anomaly -- an exception to the rule?

We gathered together our research assistants, filling our computer programs with a whole host of relevant information, including the personality indexes we had constructed and validated earlier. We recorded how much alcohol they drank, the participants' reports of their ambition, and even their parents' reports. Most importantly, we used the death certificates to see how long they lived.

The results were very clear: Those with the most career success were the least likely to die young. In fact, on average the most successful men lived five years longer than the least successful.

Especially convincing about this finding is that the men who were independently rated by Dr. Terman as most successful more than a half century ago were the ones least likely to die at any given age in the decades that followed. Some studies in this field of research might be inadvertently biased by the classifications or judgments used by the epidemiologists, but in this case, we did not have to do any job classifications or make any judgments -- we simply relied on those careful categorizations Terman and his associates had made decades ago.

WHY THE SUCCESSFUL LIVE LONGER

Conscientiousness, as we have established, is a strong predictor of longevity, and it turns out that the professionally successful Terman subjects were indeed more conscientious than their peers. But conscientiousness didn't explain everything: those with a successful career lived much longer even after taking their conscientiousness into account.

Unsurprisingly, ambition predicted career success. More to the point, ambition, coupled with perseverance, impulse control, and high motivation, was not only good for achievement but was part of the package of a resilient work life. It is not a coincidence that Edward Dmytryk was a prominent director and lived a long life or that Norris Bradbury headed a powerful agency and lived a long life. Symphony conductors, company presidents, and bosses of all sorts tend to live longer than their subordinates.

Complementing our own analyses, the sociologist Glen Elder and his colleagues looked at career changes between 1940 and 1960 and found evidence that the Terman participants who moved among various jobs without a clear progression were less likely to live long lives than those with steadily increasing responsibilities in their field. Usually this increasing responsibility brings more challenges and a heavier workload, but paradoxically this is helpful to long-term health.

LONGEVITY-Cover.bmp THE REAL SOURCE OF WORKPLACE STRESS

Converging evidence from a number of studies suggest that the damaging sort of workplace stress arises from conflicts with other people rather than from the challenges and demands of the work itself. Having a poor relationship with your overbearing boss can lead to health problems, and not getting along with your coworkers can be quite harmful. This is especially true if you have lots of responsibilities that depend on the cooperation of others but you do not have the resources or the leadership qualities to make things happen. On the other hand, if you have resources and a good deal of influence over outcomes, demanding tasks will be less stressful for you. It makes sense that those agency heads, symphony conductors, and company presidents who have both power and leadership skills will tend to remain healthy despite very demanding careers.

Individuals who tend to react with hostility to interpersonal slights are particularly likely to suffer lingering physiological damage. Those Terman subjects who were less critical of others, tried to avoid arguments, and didn't always try to get things their own way tended to be healthier and live longer. John, Norris, and others did not shy away from controversy but did seek out the good in other people.

What about the women? Shelley Smith Mydans is an outstanding example of how career success and longevity go together. Shelley, a Life magazine reporter, was captured by the Japanese in Manila while covering World War II. Her career in journalism was always challenging but very successful. Assigned first to Europe in 1939 and then to cover the Sino-Japanese War and then to Manila, she spent two years in captivity until her release in a prisoner exchange. One of Shelley's duties while in prison camp was to pick the weevils out of the cereal.

She later returned to overseas correspondence, working in radio news and reporting for Time. In her spare time, she wrote (and published) novels. Shelley Smith Mydans had a very challenging but highly successful career, as well as a successful marriage and children. It is said that she faced more stressful adventures than a soldier of fortune. Yet she lived a long, healthy life, dying in 2002 at age 86.

Like Shelley Smith Mydans, many of the long-living Terman participants faced times when they had to do such things as pick weevils out of their cereal. What our research makes clear is that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew -- and then chewing it -- does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive are exactly what those following the guideposts to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn't shy away from hard work for fear that the stress of it would lead to an early demise; the exact opposite seems true.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpg Adapted from Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin's The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life From the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street)

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Presented by

Howard Friedman

Howard S. Friedman is the distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. He has studied personality predictors of longevity for more than three decades.

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