Can our personality impact our mental health?
Understanding our personality is a common topic of interest. A quick Google search produces numerous ways of thinking and testing our personality. You may have done an online personality test to make a big life decision, such as picking a career, or even a smaller (but no less important) life decision such as picking a breed of dog to be your new best friend. Personality has been thought of as a way to help us understand our likes and dislikes, and how we may react to certain situations. But, how can our personality traits impact our mental health?
Despite the various assortments of personality tests that can be found on the Internet, Psychologists generally agree on a model of personality called the ‘Five Factor Model’. These five traits are called OCEAN, which stand for: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
Briefly, these traits can be described through qualities, such as:
Openness to Experience: cognitive flexibility, intellectual exploration, imagination, insight, creativity.
Conscientiousness: impulse-control, attention to detail, orderliness, industriousness.
Extraversion: sociability, assertiveness, high positive emotionality, enthusiasm.
Agreeableness: prosocial behaviours, compassion, politeness.
Neuroticism: emotional instability, anxiety, negative emotionality.
Researchers found that these five traits can broadly encompass someone’s personality. Several of these traits have been demonstrated to be associated with social, academic, and professional outcomes. For example, students that scored higher on conscientiousness were positively associated with achieving higher academic grades.
Interestingly, Openness to Experience and Neuroticism seem to play a role in one’s quality of life. Openness to Experience relates to a type of cognitive flexibility that drives individuals to be explorative in their thinking and behaviour, such as listening to diverse genres of music, or investigating theories of the universe, for example. Neuroticism, on the other hand, reflects a tendency towards negative emotions, such as feeling excessive levels of worry. Neuroticism has been associated with several mental health illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. On the other hand, a study has found that higher Openness to Experience is associated with better stress regulation. This may be because of the flexible and insightful qualities that seem to underlie this trait, which may encourage a more multifaceted approach to interpreting and understanding events or others. While more research is required to establish a substantial connection between the two, it seems that increasing one’s Openness to Experience can be beneficial in the perception of scenarios in a manner that benefits wellbeing.
Personality may seem like something that is ingrained, however, it can change with time and experience. Developing skills such as practising mindfulness and meditation has been shown to enhance some traits while diminish the reactivity of others. For example, the minds of monks show a unique difference to laypeople in the activity in one particular neural circuit - the Default Mode Network. This network is highly active in conceptions of the self, as well as memories of the past and aspirations of the future. In individuals skilled in practising meditation, this has been shown to ‘quieten down’ with more meditation, allowing for more space to be present, and less opportunity for negative self-talk and rumination.
Personality can be thought of as a lens through which we interpret events of the world. Some of these traits may impact our interpretations of daily experiences, in a unhelpful or helpful way. Being mindful that our experiences can be largely altered by our own personal interpretations of it can benefit how we cope with stressful situations and make us feel that we have more control over what occurs in our lives. Therefore, enhancing some of our more explorative, flexible personality traits, in order to be more adaptive to a variety of situations, can be helpful in nurturing more resilience in our mental health. Mental health is something that everyone is entitled to and should continually work to cultivate; the way that we react to situations can, indeed, be changed. It is important to remember that a little bit of work on ourselves can go a long way.
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Steel, Piers; Schmidt, Joseph & Shultz, Jonas (2008). "Refining the relationship between personality and Subjective well-being". Psychological Bulletin. 134 (1): 138–161. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.1.138. PMID 18193998.
DeYoung, C. G., Quilty, L. C., & Peterson, J. B. (2007). Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the Big Five. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(5), 880.