When it comes to your health, defined in 1948 by the World Health Organization (c’mon keep reading) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” here’s a little secret. The more your doctor knows about your psychological make up, your personality, the more likely s/he will be able to develop an effective preventive health care plan for you. That’s at least what research done at the Duke University Medical Center and published by the American Psychological Association reported.
So the question for you is, do YOU know your whole person, your personality traits, that you can draw on to help you live healthier, better? After all, if you are seeking the best in contemporary health care, you’d be wise to seek integrated medical health providers that treat all of you, that understand how your personality traits impact your attitudes and drive you toward a healthy lifestyle – or toward an unhealthy lifestyle. Let’s define “personality” as found in David C. Funder’s The Personality Puzzle “as an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms—hidden or not—behind those patterns”
Much has been written on what a healthy lifestyle is. At the risk of you rolling your eyes more than you may already have been, we know from the American College of Lifestyle Medicine that these six behaviors can help you meet the definition of health:
1. Increasing physical activity,
2. Managing (I prefer “preventing”) stress,
3. Forming and maintaining relationships,
4. Improving your sleep,
5. Avoiding risky substances, and
6. Healthful eating including whole, plant-based foods
These may sound a bit like Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone approach to creating longevity and better health:
1. Move Naturally. Moving naturally throughout the day — walking, gardening, doing housework — is a core part of the Blue Zones lifestyle.
2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Knowing why you wake up in the morning makes you healthier, happier, and adds up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift. Stress is part of life, but Blue Zones centenarians have stress-relieving rituals built into their daily routines. Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. 80% Rule. People in Blue Zones areas stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full and eat their smallest meal in the early evening.
5. Plant Slant. Beans are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Vegetables, fruit, and whole grains round out the rest of the diet and meat is eaten in small amounts.
6. Wine @ 5. Moderate but regular consumption of wine (with friends and/or food) is part of the Blue Zones lifestyle.
7. Belong. Being part of a faith-based community adds four to 14 years to life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First. Having close and strong family connections (with spouses, parents, grandparents, and grandchildren) is common with Blue Zones centenarians.
9. Right Tribe. The world’s longest-lived people have close friends and strong social networks.
All well and good, but what’s your personality traits have to do with these wonderful healthy behaviors? We’ve learned that there are personality traits associated with good health, for example, “conscientiousness.” This is one of the Big Five Personality Traits. These traits, comprise what many believe sum up a whole person’s personality:
5. Openness to experience, comprise what many believe sum up a whole person.
Let’s break these down:
Extraverted people are generally outgoing, expressive, energetic and dominant.
Agreeableness is commonly described as being cooperative, considerate, empathic, generous, polite and kind.
Neuroticism is associated with anxiety, vulnerability to stress, being guilt-prone, lacking in confidence, being moody, easily frustrated and angered, and insecure in relationships.
Conscientious people are seen as responsible, attentive, careful, persistent, orderly, planful, and future oriented.
Openness is seen in those who are open to experiences, who are imaginative, creative, aesthetically sensitive, quick to learn, clever, insightful, attentive and aware of feelings.
You may be able to see why it was found that people high on the trait of conscientiousness “are more likely to have active lifestyles, maintain healthy diets and have more self-control, so are less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol and drugs” according to research. This points to why, in addition to considering “what” a patient has among risks for chronic age-related diseases, physicians can benefit from knowing “who” the patient is in terms of personality in order to design effective preventive health care, according to the American Psychological Association.
Do these five traits summarize a person? Well, enter the “great trait debate.”
Other studies have found that two other major personality traits are most predictive of wellbeing in the Big Five model, high extraversion and low neuroticism.
Another study “involved more than 8,000 people living in the United Kingdom, ages 50 and older. Scientists found that participants who exhibited the same five attributes were happier, healthier and managed their finances better. Here’s an overview of their five characteristics:
- Determined – Challenging circumstances and obstacles rarely cause people with determination to give up. Instead of retreating or avoiding a situation, they face problems head on or look for alternative ways to accomplish the same goal.
- Disciplined – This attribute allows people to maintain self-control and focus to achieve their goals. They get involved in decisions vs. watching from the sidelines and can manage a variety of situations. They are calm and in control.
- Optimistic – People who are optimistic believe that things will get better instead of worse. They see the positive side of life vs. focusing on what’s not right. They encourage others to see the good in any situation.
- Conscientious – This personality trait is guided by an internal compass that directs people in knowing right from wrong, working diligently, honoring obligations and being self-disciplined and organized. They care about others and abide by the golden rule.
- Emotionally stable – People with this skill are strong and can take criticism and bad news without breaking down. They don’t let difficult circumstances or how others treat them impact how they feel. In short, they don’t take things personally.”
And what about this study’s findings of the personality traits that are most predictive of wellbeing?
- High Positive emotions (high frequency and intensity of positive moods and emotions)
- Low negative emotions (low frequency and intensity of negative moods and emotions)
- Life satisfaction (a positive subjective evaluation of one’s life, using any information the person considers relevant)
- Autonomy (Being independent and able to resist social pressures)
- Environmental mastery (Ability to shape environments to suit one’s needs and desires)
- Personal growth (Continuing to develop, rather than achieving a fixed state)
- Positive relations (Having warm and trusting interpersonal relationships)
- Self-acceptance (Positive attitudes toward oneself)
- Purpose and meaning in life (A clear sense of direction and meaning in one’s efforts, or a connection to something greater than oneself)
- Engagement in life (being absorbed, interested, and involved in activities and life
- Accomplishment (goal progress and attainment, and feelings of mastery, efficacy and competence
Perhaps if we broaden our understanding of personality traits, we will be able to identify broader paths to wellbeing and health. Obviously, there are many paths to increasing wellbeing. That’s what yet other research found. Enthusiastic people with low levels of withdrawal from life, who are industrious and achievement-oriented, self-disciplined, efficient, purposeful, who feel compassion and care for others, who are open to new ideas and enjoy thinking deeply and complexly, and who are socially dominant and who appreciate beauty, daydreaming, imagining, fantasy and feelings, (whew!) are highly associated with greater wellbeing than those who are polite, orderly and volatile.
Of course you can change your personality and do a makeover, especially valuable during this time of self-isolation and physical distancing. How? Here are six essential ways to do so.
1. Demand less, prefer more, especially when it comes to being right
2. Stay in the moment to help you tune inward and catch-correct your thoughts in order to gain more unconditional self-acceptance
3. Avoid comparing yourself to others while strengthening your empathy-compassion
4.. Be willing to push beyond your comfort zone by recognizing it isn’t “awful” to do so, it’s courageous, especially when interacting with others
5. Give fuel to developing a positivity bias in your view of life
6. Once you’ve reframed your perspective on your circumstances, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable reaching forward in life, connecting with others, and that’s a sure sign of wellbeing, and a promise of leading a healthier lifestyle.
Your health depends on your personality. You can change your personality. Remember it begins with your thinking…Think well to eat well to move well to sleep well to love well to live well.