Do You Have a Healthy Personality?

by Scott Barry Kaufman, November 22, 2018 in Blog

“Healthy personality is a way for a person to act, guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that personal needs are satisfied and so that the person will grow in awareness, competence, and the capacity to love the self, the natural environment, and other people.” — Sidney Jourard

In the 50 and 60s humanistic thinkers such as Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney, Sidney Jourard, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm attempted to characterize the healthy personality. While there are some differences in their conceptualizations, there was a general consensus that the healthy personality consists of:

  • More positive than negative emotions in daily life
  • Openness and flexibility of emotional expression
  • Trust in one’s own experience
  • Self-acceptance
  • Resistance to stress
  • Healthy self-assertion
  • Responsibility and competence
  • Warm, authentic connection to others

A limitation of these early theories, however, is that many of them were not systematically tested. Recent research however, has begun to determine the personality profile that leads to optimal health and growth. One example is the new Characteristics of Self-Actualization Scale that I developed to directly capture the writings of Maslow and tie them to modern research in personality and well-being.

Another recent line of research has attempted to look at the basic personality traits that characterize psychologically healthy people. In a study led by Jessie Sun, we found that five traits are most strongly related to a wide range of sources of well-being (including measures of life satisfaction, self-acceptance, meaning, purpose, and accomplishment).

In a just-published paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wiebke Bleidorn and colleagues take on the healthy personality even more head on. The researchers defined the healthy personality as the “profile of trait levels optimally suited for psychological adjustment.” To determine this profile, they asked experts to describe their idea of a psychologically healthy individual using 30 personality facets that have been extensively used and validated [1].

Below is the healthy personality profile that they generated, as well as a link to an online test where you can find out your own score on these traits. It’s striking how similar their healthy personality profile is to the ideas that were put forward by the humanistic psychologists in the 50s and 60s, especially Carl Roger’s notion of the “fully functioning human“.

The Healthy Personality Profile

You can find out your own score on the healthy personality profile here. Note that no single trait in the healthy personality profile necessarily indicates a healthy personality. On the contrary, no single trait necessarily indicates an unhealthy personality [2]. We’re only talking probabilities based on large samples, and for this specific configuration of traits. The key determination is the extent to which low scores on this profile block you from reaching your personal goals. With those caveats in mind, the following ten traits form the healthy personality profile:

  • Openness to Feelings

Openness to feelings implies receptivity to one’s own inner feelings and emotions and the evaluation of emotion as an important part of life. Those with high openness to feelings experience deeper and more differentiated emotional states and feel both happiness and unhappiness more intensely than others. Those with low openness to feelings have somewhat blunted affects and do not believe that feeling states are of much importance.

  • Straightforwardness

Straightforward individuals are frank, sincere, and ingenuous. People who are low in straightforwardness are more willing to manipulate others through flattery, craftiness, or deception. They view these tactics as necessary social skills and may regard more straightforward people as naive.

  • Competence

Competence refers to the sense that one is capable, sensible, prudent, and effective. Those who are highly competent feel well-prepared to deal with life. Those with a low sense of competence in their lives have a lower opinion of their abilities and admit that they are often unprepared and inept.

  • Warmth

Warmth is relevant to issues of interpersonal intimacy. Warm people are affectionate and friendly. They genuinely like people and easily form close attachments to others. People who are low in warmth are neither hostile nor necessarily lacking in compassion, but they are more formal, reserved, and distant in manner than those who are high in warmth.

  • Positive Emotions

Those with high levels of positive emotions tend to experience positive emotions such as joy, happiness, love, and excitement. They laugh easily and often, and are cheerful and optimistic. Those with low levels of positive emotions are not necessarily unhappy; they are merely less exuberant and high-spirited.

  • Low Angry Hostility

Angry hostility represents the tendency to experience anger and negative emotions, such as frustration and bitterness. Those with high levels of angry hostility have a higher readiness to experience anger.

  • Low Anxiety

Anxious people are shy, fearful, nervous, tensed and restless. Anxious people are more likely to have a variety of fears, as well as free-floating anxiety. On the other hand, those who are low in anxiety are more calm and relaxed in their daily lives.

  • Low Depression

Those who are high in the trait depression are more likely to experience depressive affect in their daily lives. In particular, they are prone to feelings of guilt, sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness. They are easily discouraged and often dejected. Those who are low in depression rarely experience such emotions, but they are not necessarily cheerful and lighthearted (it depends on a person’s Positive Emotions score).

  • Low Vulnerability to Stress

Those who are high in vulnerability to stress feel unable to handle the everyday demands of life. Those who have a low vulnerability to stress perceive themselves as capable of handling themselves in difficult situations and often have a healthy feeling of trust in their adaptive abilities.

  • Low Impulsivity

Impulsiveness refers to the inability to control cravings and urges. Desires or yearnings (for food, cigarettes, possessions) are perceived by those scoring high in impulsivity as being so strong that the individual cannot resist them, although they may later regret the behavior. Those who are low in impulsivity find it easier to resist such temptations, having a high tolerance for frustration and the capacity to postpone gratifications. The term impulsive is used by many theorists to refer to many different and unrelated traits. Therefore, this particular use of the term should not be confused with spontaneity, risk-taking, or rapid decision time.

What Does the Healthy Personality Predict?

The researchers found that the healthy personality profile was not merely the opposite of personality disorders [3], nor was it the same as normative functioning [4], suggesting that the healthy personality profile is worth studying in its own right.

The researchers looked to see whether the profile they generated could be used to assess healthy personality functioning at the individual level. To determine this, they used personality scores collected from 7 independent samples and compared the similarity of individual personality test scores with the prototypical healthy personality profile identified by the experts.

They found that the healthy personality tends to be most pronounced in middle adulthood, and scores were relatively stable across a 5-year period. There was also a substantial genetic component to the healthy personality: 43% of the differences in the self-reported healthy personality scores and 30% of the differences in the peer-reports were explained by genetic influences (the remaining variation mostly reflected nonshared environmental influences).

Looking across a wide range of outcomes of healthy psychological functioning, they found that the healthy personality profile was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, healthy self-esteem, self-sufficiency, a clear and stable self-view, optimism, and the ability to resist impulses, regulate behavior, and focus attention when desired. On the flipside, the healthy personality was negatively related to aggression (particularly hostility and anger) and exploitativeness.

Interestingly, the healthy personality profile was positively related to the grandiosity aspect of narcissism and two aspects of psychopathy: boldness and stress immunity. This finding emphasizes the need to look at the total picture of a person’s personality before assessing psychopathy, as some particular aspects of psychopathy in isolation can be an indication of healthy personality functioning!

Taken together, this research suggests that the healthy personality can be understood as a particular configuration of normal personality traits. It’s exciting that there is such confluence with a number of other recent research investigations (see here and here), and how well all of this research dovetails with the ideas put forward by the humanistic thinkers in the 50s and 60s. Don’t forget to take the Healthy Personality Scale here. Also, You can read more about the scientific validation of the scale here.

Good luck on your own journey of health and growth!

Note: All trait descriptions in this article were adapted from this sample report.

Footnotes:

[1] The expert raters included scholars with expertise in trait psychology as well as experts in the field of positive psychology. They also asked two groups of undergraduate students to conduct ratings. They found a striking agreement among all of these groups in regards to what a healthy personality entails, suggesting that there is a commonly understood definition of the healthy personality.

[2] For instance, it’s quite possible to be a more introverted and reserved person– scoring lower in warmth and positive emotions– and still have a healthy overall personality profile.

[3] While the healthy personality profile was not merely the opposite of personality disorders, the healthy personality profile did show a particularly strong negative relationship to borderline personality disorder. This is interesting considering that borderline personality disorder has been considered the core of unhealthy personality functioning. The healthy personality was not merely the opposite of borderline personality disorder, however. While impulsivity was a central feature of borderline personality, reduced levels of impulsivity were not the largest indicator of the healthy personality, suggesting that healthy people have a certain degree of spontaneity in their actions.

[4] While the healthy personality was not identical to normal functioning, there was still a strong relationship between the two. As the researchers point out, the strong correspondence between healthy and normative personality functioning is consistent with Carl Jung’s assertion that balancing different extremes (which should average to the norm) is key to healthy personality functioning.


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