Autonomous orientation predicts longevity: New findings from the Nun Study

Netta Weinstein, Nicole Legate, William S. Ryan, Laura Hemmy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Objective: Work on longevity has found protective social, cognitive, and emotional factors, but to date we have little understanding of the impact of motivational dynamics. Autonomy orientation, or stable patterns of self-regulation, is theorized to be a protective factor for long-term mental and physical health (Ryan & Deci, 2017), and it is therefore a prime candidate for examining how stable psychosocial factors are linked to longevity, or life expectancy. Method: Essays written in the 1930s by participants in the Nun Study were coded for indicators of an autonomy orientation. These were selected in line with an extensive theoretical literature based in self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Essays were coded for the propensity for choice in action, susceptibility to pressure, self-reflection, integration of experiences, and parental support for autonomy. These coded variables were used to predict age of death. Results: Using 176 codable essays provided by now-deceased participants, linear regression analyses revealed that choiceful behavior, self-reflection, and parent autonomy support predicted age of death. Participants who demonstrated these stable and beneficial motivational characteristics lived longer. Conclusions: Personality constructs reflecting a healthy form of self-regulation are associated with long-term health. Implications for health interventions are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-193
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of personality
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Data collection for the Nun Study was supported by Grants R01AG09862, K04AG00553, and R03AG045476 from the National Institute on Aging.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Authors. Journal of Personality Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • Nun Study
  • autonomy
  • longevity
  • motivation
  • self-determination theory


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