- Adults who are generous and kind have lower depression, lower cognitive impairment and higher daily functioning.
- High levels of kindness can lead to less focus on oneself, including self-care, which can in turn lead to poor health.
- Higher honesty and integrity scores do not change risk for diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart disease, or high blood pressure.
Sometimes it seems like the saying “only the good die young” is true. But is it? Weziak-Bialowolska, Bialowolski, and Niemiec report the impact of honesty and integrity on physical and mental health in adults 50 years and older in their 2023 study, “Being good, doing good: the role of honesty and integrity for health.”
The authors looked specifically at strength of character, focusing on honesty and integrity, two personality traits that are fundamental to identity, whose holders seek positive outcomes for those around them and/or contribute to the greater good.
The participants were 9,831 Americans who completed the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national survey conducted biennially since 1992. They were 65.2 years old, on average, mostly women (59.6%), married (62.9%), Caucasian (83.4%), and healthy at baseline. The authors define honesty and integrity as a set of behaviors and beliefs that adhere to ethical standards of morality, and caring that contribute to a predisposition to act in accordance with accepted rules of good or moral behavior.
The role of conscientiousness
There is consistent evidence of the positive role of conscientiousness in longevity. To date, studies find that character strengths and conscientiousness contribute to health in the form of increased happiness, life satisfaction, and physical fitness. Strength of character helps manage chronic pain and quality of life in multiple sclerosis and cardiac patients and moderates the stresses of COVID-19 in individuals with chronic health conditions and disabilities.
Numerous studies report associations between conscientiousness and lower risks of high blood pressure, lower Body Mass Index, and lower risks of obesity, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. Conscientiousness also mitigates the risk of lung disease, coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and arthritis, but not necessarily cancer and heart condition. Conscientiousness is associated with better memory performance, cognitive status, and less decline over time.
What about honesty and integrity, in particular?
The 2023 Honesty and Integrity study finds that adults who live their lives according to ethical standards and accepted rules of good and/or moral behaviors of generosity and kindness have lower risks of depression, less cognitive impairment, and a greater ability to physically navigate life activities. The character strength of honesty and integrity is favorably associated with a lower risk of disease and lower limitations in daily functioning, even after taking into account psychological factors, health behaviors, and prior health conditions.
Older adults who scored higher on the Character Strength of Honesty and Integrity (CSHI) scale demonstrated an 18% lower risk of lung disease and scored 11% better on the depression scale.
But Wait, Some Do Die Younger?
For some character strengths, the authors find negative associations with health outcomes. These are fairness, kindness, leadership, and spirituality. Not only that, but they find the more one has these character strengths, the more harmful this can be to health.
They explain that character strengths can have a negative impact if they are overused or underused. As the individual brings forth too much or too little of a strength in a particular situation, it can have a negative impact on the individual or others. “For example, the character strength of kindness involves going out of one's way to be caring, compassionate, or giving to others. Overusing kindness can make one feel overextended, drained, and compassion fatigued. Despite being well-intentioned, kindness may become imbalanced through an excessive focus on others. This has the danger of limiting self-compassion and health behaviors in oneself, such as self-care, quality sleep, healthy eating, and exercise.” An example of this might be people who are among the 30-70% of family caregivers who die before those they care for.
They also found that older adults with higher honesty and integrity scores did not have any change in their risk for diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart disease, or high blood pressure.
Regardless, the authors concluded that to live longer and healthier, consider honesty and integrity as a factor for promoting healthy longevity, limiting risks of becoming physically inactive, and reducing the risk of physical and mental disease.
Weziak-Bialowolska D, Bialowolski P, Niemiec RM. (2023). Being good, doing good: the role of honesty and integrity for health. Soc Sci Med. 2021; 291:114494.
Weziak-Bialowolska D, Bialowolski P, VanderWeele TJ, McNeely E. (2021). Character strengths involving an orientation to promote good can help your health and well-being. Evidence from two longitudinal studies. Am J Heal Promot. 2021; 35: 388–398.
Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. (2018).Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. J Exp Soc Psychol. 76: 320–329.