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Personality influences lifespan as much as socioeconomic status. Why is that?

On this day in 1930, the Mother Superior of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sent a letter asking every member of the sisterhood to write an autobiography. She offered few further instructions, and so left it up to each member of the order to decide how to describe the most important episodes of their lives. Some nuns chose to insert emotional details about how their experiences had affected them. Others recounted only bald facts.

Seven decades later, researchers at the University of Kentucky found that these differences were strong predictors of how long the 180 nuns in their study lived. The more the sisters couched their accounts of personal responses to major life events in positivity, the greater their longevity.

The great benefit of studying nuns is that on all the common lifestyle factors that tend to affect longevity – living conditions, access to health care, marriage (or lack of it) – nuns live virtually identical lives to one another. The autobiographies were written when the Notre Dame sisters were around 22 years old. So this study suggests that enduring tendencies and coping mechanisms, when extended throughout our adult lives, matter substantially for health and lifespan.

These days, psychologists have reached a consensus on a more thorough way to measure personality than merely degree of positivity: they score individuals along five dimensions.

These dimensions, known as the Big Five, are each continuums: from pure introversion to exaggerated extraversion, for example, or neurotic nervousness to complete confidence. Together the Big Five compose the acronym Ocean –openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or emotional stability) – and are typically assessed using a questionnaire. Over time, researchers have come to realize that personality is at least as good at predicting longevity as socioeconomic status.

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