Long life is a typical feature of individuals living in cooperative societies. One explanation is that group living lowers mortality, which selects for longer life. Alternatively, long life may make the evolution of cooperation more likely by ensuring a long breeding tenure, making helping behaviour and queuing for breeding positions worthwhile. The benefit of queuing will, however, depend on whether individuals gain indirect fitness benefits while helping, which is determined by female promiscuity. Where promiscuity is high and therefore the indirect fitness benefits of helping are low, cooperation can still be favoured by an even longer life span. We present the results of comparative analyses designed to test the likelihood of a causal relationship between longevity and cooperative breeding by reconstructing ancestral states of cooperative breeding across birds, and by examining the effect of female promiscuity on the relationship between these two traits. We found that long life makes the evolution of cooperation more likely and that promiscuous cooperative species are exceptionally long lived. These results make sense of promiscuity in cooperative breeders and clarify the importance of life-history traits in the evolution of cooperative breeding, illustrating that cooperation can evolve via the combination of indirect and direct fitness benefits.