How is Personality linked to Health?
||Dr. Jodee Graifman Meddy, DO, MS, LNHA|
Co-founder of SeniorSite.com.
Dr. Jodee Meddy is a nationally acclaimed Doctor, Licensed Nursing Home Administrator and an expert on Long Term / Extended Care issues and Nursing Homes.
This is a question that has kept researchers busy for the past
twenty-five years. Two early conceptualizations of the personality-health
link used the concept of 'hardiness' and the 'Type A / Type B' personality
Type A and Type B Personalities:
In 1974 Friedman and Rosenman formulated a set of personality factors
considered to typify the 'Type A' personality. This was considered to
include impatience, greater competitiveness, aggressiveness, always feeling
under time pressure, and often experiencing some hostility. The behaviors
through which these traits were expressed were over work; increased work
intensity; and the feeling of greater mental strain. Type B personalities,
on the other hand, would not show these personality traits.
In 1979 Kobasa coined the concept of 'hardiness', or the 'hardy
personality' to describe a particular type of personality that was seen to
reduce the effects of stress on health. Hardy people are considered to have
control over events in their lives; feel committed to social relations, to
society and to themselves; and would tend to view change as a challenge
rather than as a threat. Particular personality traits linked to hardiness
are endurance, strength, courageousness and the ability to exercise
authority or influence.
These conceptualizations established the link between personality and
health - but did not immediately explain HOW this link was established.
The HOW has been explained in two stages:
Early research into the health-personality association focused on the
direct effect of personality traits, suggesting a link between physiology
and personality. For instance, it was found that people who worried a lot
tended to get ulcers and workaholics tended to get heart attacks. The link
might work something like this: Worry causes an overactive digestive system.
Too much digestive juice in the stomach erodes away at the stomach lining,
causing ulcers. Or, anger and aggression increase the pulse rate and blood
pressure, which puts people at risk of heart attacks.
However, this does not offer us any guidance for lifestyle change. If
personality is considered to be stable and difficult to change, does this
mean that we can not do much to change our health status? Also, it is not
always clear which way around the link works: Does personality influence
health or does health status influence personality? It is probably a bit of
But looking at the influence of personality on health:
A second wave of research has focused on the indirect link between
personality and health through behaviors such as smoking, doing risky
things, monitoring personal health, eating a healthy diet/overeating and
doing regular exercise. Behaviors are determined by values, attitudes and
beliefs. These might include attitudes about how important health is and
beliefs about how much personal control we have in improving our health.
Attitudes, values and beliefs are possibly shaped by personality traits. In
particular, researchers have found that five personality traits promote
- Extroversion (being outgoing and sociable)
- Agreeableness (being kind and trusting)
- Conscientiousness (being organized and thorough)
- Emotional stability (being calm and even-tempered)
- Openness to experience (being imaginative and intelligent).
One of the more well-known studies in this area has found that people who
are conscientious and dependable tend to live the longest. This includes
people who were considered to be prudent, who think before acting, are
truthful and free from vanity. The researchers suggest that these people are
capable to better 'self-management'.
While this does not amount to much in the way of concrete advice for
health improvement, it is interesting. In our own lives we are always trying
to understand others' personalities and are intrigued by feedback on how
others perceive us.
Information about how psychologists have approached the subject of
personality measurement gives us the vocabulary and some of the tools for
describing and understanding ourselves and others around us. However, it
must be remembered that psychological measures of personality are not the
last word on who you are. They are deficient in a number of respects: the
measures are not completely reliable - there are factors that can influence
how you respond to questions presented in different formats or on different
days; and there is the argument that personality can not be summed up in
numbers or categories.