By: Ergolog

Some say that hard workers work themselves to death. Men and women who work themselves to the bone in search of betterment are unlikely to live to an old age, and the stress of the commitments they impose on themselves reduces their life expectancy. Sounds logical, but according to psychologists at the University of California the reverse is actually true.

Looking for faulty genes

The American psychologist Lewis Madison Terman was a controversial figure. In the early 20th century he was a champion of apartheid and eugenics, and worked for the Human Betterment Foundation, an organisation that campaigned for compulsory sterilisation of people with faulty genes.

Terman’s interest, however, was not confined to inferior humans who he believed should not be allowed to reproduce; he was also fascinated by gifted children. In 1921 he started the Genetic Studies of Genius project, in which his aim was to follow a large group of highly intelligent young people over many years.

Terman died in 1956, but the project is still going. Psychologists are still following the highly gifted school children of the twenties. The mildly fascist orientation of the project has long since been dropped and the project is now called the Terman Life Cycle Study. In Annals of Behavioral Medicine the researchers published a sub-study for which they used the data on just under 700 participants who had been monitored under the Terman Life Cycle Study until 2006.

Success & life span

The researchers measured the career success that the men had achieved, using criteria that included “occupational classification (according to the then current census), job prestige, job performance, roles of leadership in the workplace, honors and recognitions received, and annual income”. The researchers divided the men into three categories: not successful, moderately successful and successful. When the researchers looked at the age that the men had reached, the figure below emerged. The more successful the men had been, the longer they had lived.


So a successful career lengthens life. Now there’s also a psychological trait that is associated with a longer life, but also determines how successful you are in your career: conscientiousness. Conscientious people have self-discipline and ambition, think before they act, and are tidy, organised and pay attention to detail. Above all, they are hard workers.

Conscientiousness, together with openness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, goes to make up the Big Five – the five most important determinants of personality. Studies have shown that openness, extraversion and conscientiousness go together with a longer life. [Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2008 May;16(5):399-405.]

In the Terman study conscientiousness was also associated with a longer life. When the researchers separated out the effects of career success and conscientiousness they got the figure shown below.


If you are conscientious, even without social success your mortality risk is lower. So hard workers always live longer, regardless of how successful they are. The less successful they are, the greater the protective effect of this trait. But social success protects as well. If hard work is rewarded with success, so much the better.

Ann Behav Med. 2009 April; 37(2): 154–163.