Autonomous people live longer
If your life is a car, are you behind the wheel yourself? If you can answer that question truthfully with a heartfelt 'yes', then chances are you still have a long life ahead of you. In any case, a longer life than people who feel that it is not themselves, but the circumstances that determine where life takes them.
Not long ago, we wrote about the Nun Study, in which American researchers followed a group of nuns who joined the order of the North American School Sisters of Notre Dame in the 1930s, and who had written essays on their inner drives. That analysis showed that positive emotions such as happiness and optimism could extend the life of the nuns by ten years.
What was special about the Nun Study was that the women, by choosing a religious lifestyle within the same order, led an almost identical way of life, with an identical diet, sleeping rhythm and amount of exercise.
In 2019, Netta Weinstein, a psychologist from Cardiff University, published a study using the same essays. Weinstein selected the essays for expressions of autonomy, then determined how old the authors of the essays had become.
The psychological traits discussed in this post fall under the heading of autonomous motivational orientation. When you are autonomous, you let yourself be guided by your goals, values and interests. Autonomous people see their life course mainly as the result of the choices they have made, and not as a result of coercion and the circumstances. [Choice]
Another aspect of autonomy is self-reflection. Autonomous people think about their reactions and their past, know themselves and their emotions, and let knowledge play a role in their decisions. [Self reflection]
Many autonomous people owe their attitude partly to their parents. They have accepted and supported their pursuit of autonomy. [Parent Support]
Weinstein found that all three aspects of autonomy mentioned above reduced the risk of death of the nuns. The figures below summarize Weinstein's findings.
After Weinstein brushed off the longevity effect of positive emotions with statistics, autonomy still reduced the risk of death.
"The findings that choiceful motivation, self-reflection, and parent autonomy support have links with longevity decades later demonstrate the importance of these factors in shaping long-term health", writes Weinstein.
"Our findings suggest that modifying one's motivation orientation to be more autonomous might reduce risk for poor health in older age. Motivational characteristics are likely modifiable at different developmental stages as may also be the case for the hypothesized constructs that comprise orientation leading to greater health and longevity."
"Given this, it suggests fruitful avenues for intervening at different developmental stages to promote a more autonomous motivational orientation, especially by encouraging choiceful decision making, providing opportunities for self-reflection, and intervening with parents to enhance their provision of autonomy support."
"It is thus critical that work continue to investigate these and other motivational factors that may offer more clues on extending longevity."
J Pers. 2019 Apr;87(2):181-93.
Religion as a life-extender: more is better 09.07.2018
Obituaries reveal the secret of a long life: religion 17.06.2018
Positive emotions extend life expectancy by ten years 13.06.2013
Psychology of Longevity