Midway through the war, the Mydanses were captured in the Philippines. The Japanese held them in POW camps in Manila and Shanghai. But despite spending two years as prisoners of war, both Mydanses survived and went on to live long and productive lives. Shelley lived to 86, while Carl made it all the way to 97.
Many who survived the war were not so fortunate. A U.S. serviceman named Philip was also in the Pacific theater during World War II. Even before the war, Philip was prone to anxiety and “catastrophizing”—always predicting the worst. After he returned home, these traits intensified. Philip drank heavily and separated from his wife. Frustrated and resentful about his time overseas, blaming it for his failed marriage, Philip escalated his drinking. He tended not to exercise, and he was occasionally depressed. He died at age 64 of a heart attack.
The Mydanses’ and Philip’s very different stories were recounted in The Longevity Project, a book that summarizes an 80-year study based on interviews and health data collected from approximately 1,500 people— each followed from youth until death. Its authors came to an unlikely conclusion. “We found that many people who lived through hard times went on to live long lives,” says coauthor Leslie Martin, PhD, a professor of psychology at California’s La Sierra University.
Unlike Philip, for whom the war seemed to push life onto a self-destructive path, Martin says that the Mydanses appeared to turn their World War II experience into a source of motivation. “They didn’t see their stress as meaningless—it seemed to fuel them,” she says. “And this ability to think about the hard things we go through as ultimately beneficial seems to be important.”
Eat right, exercise, avoid stress ... These vague directives are often framed as the necessary ingredients for a long and healthy life. There is definitely some truth to each of them. But those who have studied longevity say these are oversimplifications that tend to prioritize action over attitude. While day-to-day habits and behaviors matter, a person’s approach to life— including, and maybe especially, the way he or she reacts to hardship—is arguably the more important side of the longevity coin.
Confronted by difficult times, a lot of people start drinking, smoking, abandoning exercise, cutting ties with friends, or making other unhealthy choices. These new habits can be hard to kick once the problematic period has passed. However, certain qualities seem to safeguard some people from such pitfalls. Experts say one quality consistently tops the list. “In terms of personality characteristics, the strongest predictor of a long life was being high on conscientiousness,” says Martin.
Conscientiousness refers to someone who is organized, prudent, and persistent in their pursuits. “Conscientious people are planful and responsible, not impulsive,” she says. “When they take on a task, they don’t give up easily.”
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