The Words You Use Predict How Long You’ll Live

They’re just words, right? Not so fast! According to new research, what you say could predict how long you’re going to live.

In the study, psychologists analyzed 197 books and speeches, paying special attention to words that indicated a “failure mindset” – that is, words associated with attitudes like helplessness, fatalism and pessimism.

When the researchers counted up how often these words were used and looked at how long the authors of the books and speeches had lived, it turned out that people who used more failure words tended to die younger.

Of course, it’s not that using failure words literally kills you. Rather, failure words were apparently a sort of proxy for how often the people who wrote the books and speeches tended to think about failure. To put it another way, thinking about failure more leads people to use failure words more and appears to also be associated with shorter lifespan.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found a correlation between people’s vocabulary and longevity. A 2007 study analyzed the autobiographies of 96 psychologists and 220 writers – this time looking not for failure words but for social words.

Among both the psychologists and the writers, people who used more words indicating social roles (“father,” “co-worker,” etc.) had longer lifespans.

Similarly, a study published in September looked at writing samples from historians, physicists, psychologists and presidents, focusing on agency words – words related to control, mastery, and so on. As you might be able to guess by now, using more agency words was correlated with living longer.

Once again, no one’s suggesting that the key to staying healthy is to repeat social words and agency words over and over. But the research does indicate that being socially connected and having an attitude of being in control of your own destiny can only help.

Eating your fruits and vegetables is probably a good idea too. That said, we may have to update the old saying for the twenty-first century: an agency word a day keeps the doctor away!

Image: Flickr/Alastair Bennett under CC BY-NC 2.0


  1. Alice Carleton on November 19, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Words….have the power of life and death. Words can lift us up or destroy us. My expertise is in verbal abuse.

    • Neil Petersen on November 21, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      True — in many situations, there’s no such thing as “just words.”