You walk into a time machine with 5 female members of your graduating high school class.
You turn the dial to 70 years into the future.
Rainbow lights streak past. G-forces upend your stomach. Your hair stands on end. You reach for your purse hopelessly for the brush you didn’t bring.
At last, the time machine shudders and stops.
You know the moment you step out, time will catch up with you. Seventy years will suck moisture out of your skin, shrivel your muscles and curve your spine. If you’re lucky.
If you’re unlucky, you’ll be dead.
Because you can’t count on being alive at 88 years of age. Not many people can.
And that’s why you’re in this time machine. To answer a fascinating question…
If you looked around at your high school class on graduation day, how many of you would still be alive seventy years later?
And who would it be?
Would it be the sporty girl who steps out of that time machine alive at nearly ninety, wrinkled and white-haired but still kicking?
Would it be the party girl? The career girl? The nerdy girl? The good girl?
Age gives perspective on mortality.
If you look at the people around you right now, you can probably make a decent guess about who’s going to get to enjoy a long retirement. The older we get, the more apparent our health (or lack thereof) becomes.
But back when you were 18, it wouldn’t have been as clear.
Nearly a century ago, Stanford University psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman wondered how much we could predict about our lives from how we were as children. His study followed 1500 bright, promising middle-class children from youth to death. Although Dr. Terman himself died before his study was complete, his work was carried on.
Fast forward to the modern day.
Health scientists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin came across the Terman data. They asked a different question:
What can the Terman study tell us about what makes some people live a long life and not others?
Friedman and Martin published their answers in a 2011 book, The Longevity Project.
Thank Goodness I’m a Woman
First, the obvious.
You’re in the time machine with a group of women.
By virtue of your sex, you’ll stand a better chance than your male classmates at walking out of that time machine alive.
Women live longer than men. We know that much.
But when Friedman and Martin poked into this well-known statistic to find out WHY, they discovered something shocking.
Being female didn’t affect longevity as much as being feminine.
Feminine men and feminine women lived longer than masculine men and masculine women.
The Sporty Girl
If asked what contributes most to a long life, most of us would guess it has something to do with eating right and exercising regularly.
So a girl who was into sports and fitness at 18 would surely be set up for a long, healthy life.
Or would she?
When you overdo exercise, you run the risk of two things: injury and burnout.
Overdoing exercise can be as bad for your health as not doing enough. When you give your all to anything, the well of passion can run dry. Just look at professional sportspeople a few years after their careers finished. You can’t keep that level of motivation up forever.
So the sporty girl stands no better chance than anyone else at living longer unless she keeps up her physical activity level into middle age and beyond.
When Friedman and Martin looked at the Terman participants in their sixties, they found the jocks were no more physically active than the nerds. It takes more than a youthful predilection to sports to stay healthy decade after decade.
The Party Girl
We know that social isolation is bad for our health. But what about the opposite?
Can being the life of the party help you live longer?
The girl who was invited to every party and hosted a fair few of her own may have had a fabulous time in her teens, but she probably didn’t become the life of the party at the nursing home. Especially if she ended up on Husband #4.
Friedman and Martin found that happy-go-lucky, cheerful sorts were more likely to engage in riskier hobbies as well as suffer the health consequences of alcohol and tobacco use.
Although multiple marriages mean multiple opportunities for a party, getting divorced is a great way to knock a few years off your life. Try not to keep repeating the experience.
The Career Girl
Everybody knows that Type A personalities with high pressure jobs who never take time off always die young of a heart attack. The overpaid exec never gets to enjoy his gilded retirement, right?
If you’re passionate about what you do, and you put in long hours at a job that’s highly stressful and intense, you’ll probably live a long life. Especially if you’re the boss.
This was just one of the counterintuitive results from Friedman and Martin’s research. Career success is directly related to longevity.
And forget retirement. If you want to lead a full, satisfying life for as long as possible, make plans to stay active. Work part-time, sign up for college courses, set new goals, or volunteer. Don’t kick back with your feet up and relax.
The Nerdy Girl
Back in high school, she was the one you all thought would live forever. She was voted most likely to have her body cryogenically frozen and revived in 500 years.
Even though she wasn’t particularly healthy, sociable, or memorable in high school, none of those qualities would have held her back necessarily as she lived out her life.
Maybe she never got married. Maybe she never outgrew her shyness. Nevertheless, she probably found herself building a satisfying life that fulfilled her well into her golden years.
Women who never marry tend to live longer than women who get married, get divorced, and get married again. Divorce takes a toll on one’s health.
And being sociable doesn’t necessarily lead to a longer life, as the example of the party girl showed us.
Being anxious and fearful can actually be advantageous. Worrying about your health makes you more likely to do something about it.
The Good Girl
Then there’s the good girl.
The girl who was always conscientious, dependable, prudent, persistent, detail-oriented and responsible.
She got married out of college and stayed married to the same guy all her life. She became involved in her local church and took time to volunteer. She never smoked or drank to excess. Her friends were other “good girls” like herself.
Good girls aren’t much in favor these days. We tend believe good girls lose out on all the fun. But maybe we won’t be laughing last.
Friedman and Martin put it bluntly:
In both cases—childhood and adulthood—conscientiousness was the key personality predictor of long life.
Conscientiousness may not be sexy, but it’s a quality you want to have if you plan on being alive into your 80s and beyond.
Because looks won’t keep you alive. Friends, husbands, and lovers are impotent against the forces of aging. Even the marvels of science can go only so far.
It’s Nature’s neat trick that the one thing that best predicts whether you step out of that time machine alive…
Is your conscience.