Carol Landau, PhDHealth Blog - Wellness

What can we learn about health from the termites?

Published on 2011-04-27 by Carol Landau, PhD

Well, maybe much not from the termites, those wood nibbling insects but we can learn a lot from the Termites, the subjects in a long-term study on health.  In 1921, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman selected 1528 gifted children from the San Francisco area and closely observed their behavior at school and at home and measured their personality styles. 


The children’s parents (usually the mothers) were also interviewed.  Dr. Terman was a brilliant but controversial figure in American psychology.  In addition to the Termite study, he developed  the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.  Yet he held elitist and profoundly racist views.   Terman died in 1956 but his successors have followed the Termites every 5-10 years for 80 years, making the study unique in that it followed people from early childhood to death. (Less than two dozen of the Termites are still alive. )

The health, academic and career achievements and relationships have been carefully documented and analyzed.  The most recent conclusions have been published in The Longevity Project , a book by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin.  Most reviewers seem surprised that the personality trait of conscientiousness, rather than optimism, was the best predictor of better health and a longer life.  But is that really unexpected? The trait of conscientiousness is a description of behaviors, where as optimism is a more global term.  Conscientious people tend to be careful, hard working, diligent and yes, take better care of their health.  Perhaps it is not so much conscientiousness but rather the absence of recklessness—using alcohol to excess, driving too fast, smoking—that  promotes longevity.  I find another conclusion of The Longevity Project  to be more powerful: Termites who had strong social networks lived longer. These networks included not only shared activities but also involvement in helping others.  Some have challenged the conclusions in the Terman study because the subjects were all white, gifted and middle-class.  Not this one: the role of social support in promoting health, emotional well-being and longevity is one of the most consistent findings in social science research.  Social ties become even more important as we grow older. 

Take home message:  be sure to stay connected to your family, friends and community.

(Next time: Type D personality, the mortal enemy of wellness)

Carol Landau, PhD


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