Can Worrying Help You Live Longer? Researchers Say Yes

Happy-go-lucky people die sooner than worrywarts

Good news for worrywarts. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that worrying -- and the stress that often accompanies it -- is bad for your health. But now a major, 20-year study on longevity has found the opposite could be true: Researchers found those who tend to worry a lot actually outlived their carefree counterparts.

Unfettered optimism and the belief that everything is going to work out fine might make you happier – ignorance is, after all, bliss – but it could, in fact, worsen your chances of things turning out okay. The reason? Happy-go-lucky people are more likely than fretful individuals to take risks with their health. Having a devil-may-care attitude makes us less inclined to take care of our health, because we leave it up to fate. 

Though happiness can be helpful in getting us through a crisis, it is not a predictor of long life. "Participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest," says psychology professor Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D., at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., one of the study’s researchers.

The two decades of research was borne out of an 80-year study begun in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman. Called the Longevity Project, it followed more than 1,500 kids from the age of ten, collecting information on all aspects of their lives, including family history, relationships, education level, teachers’ and parents’ personality ratings, hobbies, pets, job success and military service.

In 1991, Martin and Howard S. Friedman, from the University of California, Riverside, decided to pick apart the data from the 80-year study to determine how a child’s personality affects his or her lifespan. They planned to spend six months on the project, but instead it took them 20 years.

Among their other findings:

Divorce is bad for men’s health, but doesn’t really affect women. While men in long-term marriages were likely to live beyond 70, less than one-third of divorced men were likely to reach 70. Women who divorced lived nearly as long as women who remained married.

People who were committed to their jobs and productive throughout life fared better than people who were less dedicated to their career. Even people with high-stress jobs still lived longer than those who were less serious about their work.

Friends have a great influence on how healthy or unhealthy you become – so spend more time with your exercise-loving pals. 

Pets can improve well-being, but they are not associated with a longer life. Likewise, having friends made people happier, but it didn’t help them live any longer. What did predict health and longevity: helping others. So get thee to a soup kitchen, stat.

And, for Pete’s sake, start worrying already.

Of course, the catch-22 to this study is that it gives worrywarts one less thing to worry about. All that fretting is not going to send you to an early grave, as you probably feared. But we wouldn’t recommend resting easy on that piece of information – because that could probably kill you.


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