Who isn’t on an ever-lasting quest for a healthier, happier and more fruitful life? We can’t escape self-help books telling us how to be more productive, or mindfulness gurus teaching us to be more “present”, and inspirational quotes from people who seem to have this whole life thing nailed.
But what skills do we really need to master for optimal health, wealth and success? It’s well known that not all of the most privileged or intelligent among us do well in life, so what character strengths can predict whether or not an individual will succeed? One team of scientists from University College London believe they’ve found the answer.
Having a strong supply of emotional stability, determination, control, optimism and conscientiousness in your arsenal will set you up for a full life into your 50s and 60s, new research suggests. According to the study, published in the journal PNAS, those who score highly in at least four of these five traits are wealthier, healthier, less depressed and better socially connected.
To discover the significance of key life skills, the researchers analysed the data of over 8,000 men and women ages 52 and over who have taken part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing for the last 11 years.
The differences between those with the most and fewest life skills were pretty stark – and for anyone lacking confidence in their own supply of skills, the findings are enough to bring on an existential crisis.
Just 3% of those who scored highly in all five traits reported symptoms of severe depression, compared with 22% of those with fewer skills. Those with a plentiful supply of life skills were also less likely to be lonely – just 10.5% cited loneliness, compared with nearly half of those with the fewest life skills.
Acquiring positive life skills can also help to protect us against poor physical health, the research suggested. Only 6% of those with a greater number of life skills rated their health as fair or poor, compared with 36.7% of those with fewer skills.
Highly skilled participants also had smaller waistlines, a faster walking pace (a predictor of longer life), and lower levels of cholesterol and of C-reactive protein, which has been linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The pair warned against drawing causal conclusions from the observational study, but said they made sure to take into account factors such as cognitive function, education and family background, which could also have affected life outcomes.
“No single attribute was more important than others. Rather, the effects depended on the accumulation of life skills,” said Professor Andrew Steptoe, from UCL’s department of Epidemiology & Public Health, who co-led the research.
“We were surprised by the range of processes – economic, social, psychological, biological, and health and disability related – that seem to be related to these life skills,” he added.
The study’s co-author, UCL’s Professor Jane Wardle, said the research highlights the importance of life skills such as persistence, conscientiousness and control, in later life as well as early life. She said the findings could be used to explore ways of improving older people’s health, wellbeing, and social function.