Conscientiousness and a Happier, Longer Life
Is personality genetically determined or learned? Does it change over time, or do we simply become "more like ourselves" as the years pass? Perhaps most importantly, do we have the power to change our own personality?
These timeless questions entered my brain when I read an article in the Chicago Tribune summarizing a handful of research studies indicating that a conscientious personality was associated with better health and longevity. For instance, research by Dr. Patrick Hill at the University of Illinois found that conscientiousness was linked to better cognitive functioning as a person ages. Other studies showed correlations between conscientiousness and lower rates of diabetes and stroke.
But what does "conscientiousness" really mean? I hope you don't find it too antiquated that I actually pulled out my hard copy of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to find out. According to my trusty tome, conscientiousness means "governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience; scrupulous" as well as "meticulous; careful."
In other words, a Virgo! (Although I say this jokingly, admittedly I am one and I highly identify with this trait.).
Based on this definition, the connection between conscientiousness and good health makes sense. Conscientious people are probably more likely to follow recommended health practices and avoid unhealthy habits. They would seem more likely to make and keep medical appointments, and they might notice sooner when something is physically wrong.
But I think it goes beyond that. True conscientiousness probably permeates all aspects of a person's life: social, vocational, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and environmental as well as physical. And as we've talked about before, each of these life dimensions affects our overall wellness.
For instance, approaching a job conscientiously could result in feeling more organized and less stressed at work. Being conscientious in one's marriage or partnership seems like a great way to nurture a life-long relationship. And interacting with our environment - our home and neighborhood - from a conscientious standpoint can only foster greater satisfaction with our immediate world. These and other wellness dimensions work together to create the degree of overall well-being with which we live on a daily basis.
I know I'm making this sound easy when it may seem like a big ugly chore. Who has time to be conscientious? And (back to my original questions), can we really make ourselves more conscientious, anyway?
I'm not going to lie to you - personality does tend to crystallize by adulthood and remains fairly consistent throughout life. But personality is both inherited and learned, which means that while you cannot un-inherit your DNA, you certainly can unlearn a learned habit and replace it with a better one.
Start by trying not to think about conscientiousness from a standpoint of guilt, as many do. Don't shame yourself into being conscientious about your health or about how you interact with the world. This approach is destined for failure. Instead, try to think about conscientiousness from a position of respect.
When you respect yourself, you want to honor yourself by minding your life conscientiously. And when you respect others, you want to express conscientiousness through kindness and dependability.
Once you are thinking of conscientiousness as an expression of respect, focus on enjoying it as a way of being in the moment instead of pondering the long-term consequences of your personality shift. If you are nurturing yourself and others through earnest conscientiousness, the longevity will take care of itself.