Jeanne Calment remains the record holder. The Frenchwoman, who passed away in 1997, is considered the oldest documented human ever, with a verified age of 122 years. However, some researchers speculate that this record might soon change. The number of centenarians is steadily increasing, with over 570,000 individuals worldwide surpassing the age of 100 in 2020, compared to approximately 20,000 in the 1960s. Notably, 80 percent of these centenarians are women. Additionally, certain studies suggest that the potential maximum limit of human lifespan has not yet been reached.
The doubling of life expectancy over the past 150 years can be attributed primarily to advancements in nutrition security, hygiene, and medical care. The actual number of birthdays an individual can expect, however, depends on various factors. Genetics contribute to approximately a quarter of life expectancy, with environmental influences, dietary habits, fitness, and mental health playing crucial roles.
The various effects of mental illnesses, stress, and loneliness on general health show that the impact of mental health is more significant than previously thought. Conversely, inner contentment and an active social life have shown positive long-term effects on health, according to extensive research.
So, are there personality traits that favor a very long life? Dolores Merino from the Complutense University of Madrid led a team that investigated this issue. The researchers interviewed 19 individuals aged between 100 and 107 years, comprising 16 women and three men. “the objective of this research is to know whether centenarians who have reached this age healthy share positive personality characteristics or psychological resources that have helped them to cope more successfully with the challenges, traumas, and difficulties they have, no doubt, faced during such a long life,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
In extensive interviews, participants were asked to narrate their life stories and describe themselves. In the qualitative analysis of the interviews, Merino’s team identified a total of 35 personality traits, of which they considered eight central, as they strongly applied to almost all respondents. To verify the self-assessment of the study participants, relatives were also asked in a second independent investigation to provide information on the personality traits of their relatives in a questionnaire. The results were consistent, the research team wrote. The following characteristics distinguished the respondents with great concordance:
- Vitality and Joy of Life: The surveyed centenarians showed a strong connection to life and remained interested in new activities, both mental and physical. Many of them worked until a high age, continued to pursue hobbies, and maintained an emphasis on movement. Their activities ranged from sports and walks to reading groups and games like Bingo and Sudoku.
- Enjoyment of Social Interaction: Study participants maintained active social relationships with family, friends, and caregivers, showing great interest in conversations and openness to strangers. For instance, a 104-year-old participant mentioned, “I’ve never had trouble making friends, in that sense I’m really nice.”
- Commitment: Loyalty to employers, family, and friends, reliability to life partners, and a generally high sense of responsibility were also characteristic of most study participants. This, in turn, helped strengthen relationships.
- Autonomy: Making independent decisions was important to all respondents. “I’ve always followed my own judgment,” said a hundred-year-old participant. “I’ve always been completely independent. I drove until I was 99 years old, when my daughters forbade it, it’s that I’ve always been very independent and I didn’t want to depend on anyone to bring me somewhere and take me back.”
- Curiosity: Enjoyment of new experiences and mental activity was also a common thread in the lives of the elderly participants. This was evident through their ongoing interest in travel, reading, or meeting new people. They maintained an openness to new things into old age.
- Positive Attitude and Satisfaction: The study participants generally exhibited a positive attitude. This does not mean they were always optimistic or cheerful but rather that they “are grateful for life and who have known how to enjoy it despite the difficulties they have experienced,” the research team wrote. This included finding joy in everyday things.
- Resilience: The respondents also demonstrated the ability to overcome crises and difficult situations without despairing or questioning their entire lives. All participants had experienced extremely difficult and painful events in their lives, according to Merino and colleagues. Nevertheless, they managed not to give up, to continue their lives, and in some cases, to completely reorient them.
- Intelligence: Mental capacity has long been considered a factor in longevity. This perception was reinforced in the current study. The study participants showed indications of high intelligence, regardless of their biographies. Coupled with a desire to learn and enjoyment of mental activity, this was a prominent feature of the study, according to the research team.
Learning from Centenarians
Merino and her team are convinced that the study provides lessons for us all. While certain personality traits may not be easily changed, there are aspects that everyone can learn from centenarians: overcoming oneself more often, stepping out of the comfort zone, and trying new things would never hurt. This particularly applies to social situations; avoiding them frequently makes it increasingly difficult to meet people and risks loneliness in the long run.
The passage discusses findings from the most extensive long-term study on happiness conducted at Harvard University over the past 80 years. It highlights a crucial factor determining individuals’ happiness and satisfaction with their lives: meaningful relationships. The quality of connections, including romantic partnerships, friendships, family ties, relationships with colleagues and neighbors, as well as chance encounters, significantly influences our well-being. Additionally, the passage emphasizes the importance of cultivating gratitude, especially during challenging times, by consciously acknowledging the positive aspects of life.