I feel like I need to go to meetings.
“Hello, my name is Will”.
[in unison] “Hello Will.”
“It’s been two weeks since my last workaholic episode, my phone is no longer physically plugged into my umbilical cord, and I don’t hyperventilate until I pass out when I take an entire day off.”
[polite applause] I nod. Smile meekly but appreciatively, and sit back down.
Yes, I am that person. The one who works all the time. And I know how that seems like I’m a tortured soul with a one-dimensional life, but that’s not actually true. And I also know that this article is going to sound a bit like a rationalization for an obvious mental disorder, but it also isn’t.
Where The Concern Comes From
The Type-A behavior pattern is defined as a temperament with excessive ambition, aggression, competitiveness, drive, impatience, need for control, and unrealistic sense of urgency. These are the overachievers who just cannot get themselves to sit down and chill out for a second.
It’s also commonly stated that this pattern of behavior can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. In fact, this WebMD article is explicit: “Type A Triggers Heart Disease”. Nothing equivocal about that. And if you’re a competitive person, or someone driven to succeed, you might read this and think that these tendencies will be the death of you.
However, although it’s true that the Type-A personality profile is more prone to cardiovascular disease and death, it’s also completely misleading. Type A behavior has many traits associated it (seven of them, based on the list above). And the uber anal-retentive fact-finding obsessives like me will doubtless ask which one of these traits is most responsible, or whether it is the combination of those traits, or perhaps a subset of those traits. Huh? Huh?
It turns out that there is hope for my people.
Type-A personality is to heart disease … as coffee is to cancer
Several decades ago, researchers discovered that those people who drink coffee also have a greater risk of getting cancer. As a result, these two factors were linked and we were burdened with an incorrect assumption: coffee consumption increases the risk of cancer.
The problem with this conclusion – in addition coffee-deprived mornings – was that those who drank coffee also tended to smoke. In other words, many variables were associated with coffee consumption and only one of them was actually responsible an increased risk of cancer (smoking). That means all the other variables associated with coffee consumption – like actually drinking coffee – are not related an increasing risk of cancer at all.
It’s a totally rookie science error.
The same basic problem seems to be at play in the link between the Type-A personality and cardiovascular disease. Of the seven different traits all assigned to this personality type, it turns out that only a couple of them contribute to heart problems. And the question really is, which trait is contributing to heart problems?
Anger and Hostility Are Not Your Friend
Hostility itself is a well-established risk factor for heart disease, all on its own. This effect held up for healthy people as well as those who have had prior cardiovascular problems.
This is supported by the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. A total of 3308 adults aged 18 to 30 years from 4 US metropolitan areas were followed up on over 15 years. Researchers wanted to discover which of the traits (time urgency/impatience (TUI), achievement striving/competitiveness (ASC), hostility, depression, and/or anxiety) were associated with hypertension.
They found that achievement, striving, and competitiveness – all classic hallmarks of a Type-A person – were not related to hypertension at all. However, the traits of impatience and hostility were related in a dose-dependent manner. In other words, the higher the hostility and impatience, the higher the risk of hypertension.
The message seems to be that being a hypermotivated slacker-annoying overachiever is irrelevant to your cardiovascular health. It’s neither here nor there (one less thing to micromanage, right?). So go ahead and achieve away. Have a good time running through your infinite do-loop of tasks.
What does matter is whether you carry yourself through this life with anger and hostility, or live through more positive emotions. And this distinction seems to be the case no matter where you are on the scale, from busy bee to beach bum.