Conscientiousness in Health

Patrick Randolph, Ph.D.   Date updated: 6/5/2019


Researchers believe we are born with a certain degree of conscientiousness, described as self-control, thinking before acting, making plans to reach goals in a careful way, and being able to wait patiently for them to come together over a long time.

People high in these habits seem to live longer, have better health, manage chronic pain and illness with less distress, and respond more favorably to medical care. They also tend to be successful and happy in careers and stable in their marriages. Research suggests that conscientiousness may be the single most powerful habit related to improving health and well-being.

People low in conscientiousness seem to be laid back, less likely to make a plan, less driven by success and more likely to act suddenly without thinking how it affects the future. Individuals with this pattern tend to report poorer health, be more overweight, and engage in more substance use.

We are more likely to die earlier, have high blood pressure, skin problems, Alzheimer’s disease (and other memory problems), strokes, ulcers, tuberculosis and problems managing long-term illnesses like diabetes. Doctors have found that these older patients seem much more burdened by health problems.

Even though some are more naturally organized and consistent than others, research suggests that making goals, doing things to reach them, and measuring progress along the way is a skill set, like learning to play a piano, which improves with instruction and regular practice. So if we want more personal control in health, longevity and life satisfaction, then building conscientiousness is a very good place to start.

Finally, being conscientious is not without its wrinkles. Researchers found that the conscientious facing long-term unemployment reported less life satisfaction than those who were more relaxed. It may be difficult to accept when our thought out plans don’t end the way we want them.