If you were to stop and think about what features constitute a truly “healthy” person from a psychological perspective, what would be your criteria? Is it necessary to be happy to be healthy? Do you have to be able to roll with the punches that life throws your way? Do you need to be in a good relationship? Does your record of truth-telling have to be squeaky clean? Should you steer clear of arguments? Try coming up with your own set of criteria and jot them down, or just list them in your head right now. Hold on to your answers before you read further.
University of California, Davis psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn teamed up with a distinguished group of personality psychologists from around the U.S. and Germany to investigate exactly this question. It would seem to take a massive effort to get even two people to agree on what constitutes “health” from a psychological perspective. After all, would the criteria you listed to yourself agree with the ones you believe your own partner would generate? Making matters worse, there isn’t even 100-percent consensus among psychologists about the qualities that make up “personality.” However, if you are willing to take a leap of faith on that second question, perhaps the jobisn’t as impossible as it might seem at first glance.
Assume, for the moment, that you can define personality. According to the Five-Factor Model, the approach that has received the most rigorous empirical treatment, personality consists of a set of 30 facets that form five basic dimensions. As defined in this way, your personality consists of relatively consistent ways of approaching the experiences you encounter in your life. Additionally, the Five-Factor Model proposes that your behaviors reflect your personality. As a result, not only can you describe your own personality qualities if asked to do so on a questionnaire, but other people will be able to describe you with a fair degree of accuracy. The people who know you the best, in particular, can rate you on qualities such as attentionto detail, willingness to try new things, ability to handle adversity, and general “niceness.” The qualities that make up the Five-Factor Model include such characteristics.
Traits may not tell the whole story, because they don’t apply to the deeper motivations that influence your behavior, nor do they specifically apply to emotions, but in terms of describing your basic personality, they can do a reasonably good job. The authors believe that “existing personality trait models are a viable avenue for describing the healthy personality . . . [they] capture both normative and extreme patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and . . . multidimensional trait models seemingly capture most of the important variation in human personality.”
Bleidorn and her collaborators go on to note that the Five-Factor Model is viewed as a useful perspective for understanding personality disorders. Why not, they propose, flip things around and see what the model can do for shedding light on the qualities that make up the desirable personality? The authors recognize that the healthy personality might be a moving target, but it can at least be a target that experts can generate, making it possible to compare their criteria with those that the ordinary individual can agree are also part of the equation. Together, the expert and lay perspectives can provide a road map for defining, once and for all, what it means to have psychological health.
Before describing their own trait-based approach to defining the healthy personality, the authors took into account diverse perspectives in psychology, ranging from Freud, who defined health as the ability to “loveand work,” to Maslow, who believed psychological health is synonymous with “self-actualization.” Rogers, for his part, theorized that psychological healthy people are “fully functioning,” and Frankl proposed that healthy people are able to find meaning in their lives. Across these diverse perspectives, though, Bleidorn et al. believe that they all propose the existence of a “specific personality prototype” that has certain characteristics, including the ability to love, to hold an optimistic view of the world, to be rational, have self-awareness, be able to take responsibility, be open to creative ideas. Positive psychology, they suggest, further emphasizes the good that healthy people are capable of doing.
The first step in the approach the researchers used was to ask personality experts to provide their own ratings of which of the 30 qualities in the Five-Factor Model comprise the healthy personality. Scholars outside the trait tradition, namely from the area of positive psychology, also provided their own ratings as did undergraduate students, who, presumably, are not personality experts, at least as yet. After obtaining these ratings, Bleidorn et al. then went on to test the statistical qualities of these composite ratings. Going into the process, the authors expected the healthy personality to be low in the facets of Neuroticism (N), and high on scales measuring Agreeableness (A), Extraversion (E), Conscientiousness (C), and Openness to Experience (O).
Using listservs of two professional associations that focus on personality, the authors requested that anyone interested profile the healthy personality using the 30 traits incorporated into the full Five-Factor Model (five traits X six facets within each). The sample of experts included 137 psychologists averaging 38 years old, with 60 percent identifying as female, 54 percent having a doctoral degree, and 71 percent involved with research. The other experts included 77 researchers working within the positive psychology tradition (average age of 49 with a similar profile as the first expert rating group). Student raters were drawn from campuses affiliated with two of the study authors, but both in the U.S. There were slightly over 500 students in these samples, with an average age of 21 years (76 percent female).
From experts to college students, the rating task provided strong convergence in the healthy personality qualities. The profiles they generated included low scores on all facets of N, and high scores on Openness to Feelings (part of O), Positive Emotions (a facet of E), and Straightforwardness (a facet of A). The only difference between lay people (i.e., students) and the experts involved Gregariousness and Excitement-Seeking (facets of E); students weighted these more heavily than did the experts in constructing the healthy personality profile. The second set of studies tested the healthy personality profile for stability over a two-week period and then, using a longitudinal data set from Germany, examined stability over the far longer period of five years. They also took advantage of data from the German study to examine the extent of agreement between identical twins as an assessment of the potential heritability of the healthy personality qualities. The results extended the findings from the first study to show that the high stability (and even heritability) of the healthy personality profile.
Extending from showing the existence of, and stability of, the healthy personality profile, the research team then went on to examine how adaptive to adjustment people high in these qualities would be. As expected, people whose own personalities closely matched the healthy profile were positively adjusted, as indicated by high self-esteem, positive self-concept, a clear sense of self, and high levels of optimism. They showed considerable self-control and had low scores on measures of aggression. Although overall narcissism scores didn’t relate to the healthy personality profile, there was a tendency for those at the healthy end of the scale to be somewhat grandiose and self-sufficient. They did not, unlike people who fit the narcissism personality disorder definition, have high scores on exploitativeness. In the psychopathy domain, on the two qualities considered “adaptive” (boldness and stress immunity), healthy people had higher scores, but they had low scores in the maladaptive areas of blame externalization and lack of control.
From a developmental standpoint, the authors maintain that in contrast to what midlife crisis theory would imply, “the healthy profile indicated that experts consider those traits as particularly healthy that tend to be most pronounced in middle adulthood.” If you don’t have a healthy personality now, the findings imply, you can still work on gaining qualities that will help you get there.
To sum up, the process of achieving fulfillment is one that you can work on over time if your personality doesn’t meet the profile of optimum health. With the knowledge that being emotionally stable, open to creative ideas, straightforward, and responsible all contribute to psychological health, working toward this fulfillment may very well be an achievable life goal.