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.
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.