Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Organized Conscientiousness of Dorian Gray (Or, What Keeps Us Young)

Dorian Gray sells his soul to stay young,
allowing instead a portrait painted of him
to age "with each soul-corrupting sin."
I had the fortunate opportunity to see Ken Burns speak last week at the annual dinner of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.  His presentation included a sneak peak at the upcoming series on Prohibition, which looks to be classic Burns—beautiful, thoughtful, relevant and worth investing the time to take it all in. 

Ken is 57 but looks at least ten years younger, and maybe more.

I mention this for a very particular reason.  The Longevity Project, a twenty year study by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, was recently published.  It concludes that longevity is a function of three roughly equal factors: genes, chance, and lifestyle. 

Genes are genes.  You get what you get.  

Chance has to do with major life events, such as fighting in World War II (where those deployed overseas died at a greater rate after the war than those deployed at home), or the impact of divorce, which turns out to be the single strongest social predictor of a child’s longevity.

The factor over which we presumably have the greatest control, however, is lifestyle, and what Friedman and Martin found will warm the cockles of every well ordered, slightly-obsessive heart out there.  What makes for a long life is not happiness, optimism, or even equanimity.  

“The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness, the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”


When Ken Burns spoke he evoked the poetry of America in the way he described his films and their import.  But when he answered the question, “What are you working on after the Prohibition series?” he told the audience that he and his company work on ten year plans.  Burns then proceeded to lay out an entire decade of anticipated film-making, beginning with a series on the American Dust Bowl and ending with a biography of Jackie Robinson.  Bang, bang, bang.  I didn’t take notes, but it sounded as if seven or eight enormous projects are all being carefully nurtured at various points in their development.

So, I’m sitting at dinner thinking about The Longevity Project conclusions while listening to "the picture of" a living, breathing, youthful Dorian Gray--who just happens to be one of the most diligent, organized, intentional and conscientious craftsmen around.

Ken Burns also mentioned that he spends 300 days a year fundraising, which has to be terrifically stressful.  But, the study concluded that’s not necessarily a negative factor in longevity.  “People think everyone should take it easy, but a hard job that is stressful can also lead to longevity.”  Not a job you don’t like, mind you: bad stress kills.  But a challenging job that you love, and can be successful doing, can also be a source of longevity.

If you are fortunate enough to have one of those jobs, consider yourself lucky.  If you have not yet found one, you might steal a page from Ken Burns' playbook and make it the first item on your brand new (starting-first-thing-in-the-morning) ten-year plan.