During my university education, I studied personality within the BSc Psychology programme I was completing. At the time the topic of personality was not my favourite and I must admit that I had no intentions of ever wanting to be involved with personality topics again. That was back in 2008 and I can say that it was definitely an incorrect decision to make.
Over the past few years and throughout the progression of my PhD, I have been involved in research which has investigated personality and how we recognise different emotions such as anger and happiness. I have also had the opportunity to teach upon several personality modules within the academic institutions I have worked in and this is now one area of psychology that I really enjoy teaching.
Personality can be defined in many ways but one of the most prominent definitions to me came when I was reading a work from David Funder who defined personality as: ‘an individual’s characteristic pattern of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms, hidden or not, behind those patterns.’ And this is one definition that I use in my teaching to explain to my students why we study personality and the importance of it.
Before being involved with personality teaching and research, I never understood how important personality was in explaining everyday life and how people behave with regards to their own health and well-being. Personality can influence our vulnerability to physical and psychological illnesses; how we experience such illness; how likely we are to seek support for different health issues and also the recovery and outcomes of any illness.
Personality is one of those things in life that can heavily influence health and well-being and it’s only most recently that I have become aware of this. For me, I am a ‘worrier’ and I have had to try and understand that it is my own perception of a situation (and personality) that can cause such negative health outcomes in relation to stressful situations. One example from the literature suggests that individuals with a more worried or anxious personality type may be more at risk of illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease. There are, however, positive outcomes of being a worrier in the fact that a person who worries may go out and seek medical support quicker than someone who may not worry as much – so personality is not just associated with negative things!
It’s important to understand more about personality so that support can be put in place for those people who are struggling with illness. If a person has a more anxious personality type, they can then be supported to become a less anxious individual, with the hope of then shaping their behaviour to look at their illness in a more positive light. Helping someone to be more optimistic can reduce those negative health symptoms as it has been shown that people with optimistic personality types develop less symptoms of depression and anxiety, and potentially live longer.
Personality can also influence our social behaviours, and this is sometimes not good. I’m talking in the way of personality subsequently influencing our risk of certain illnesses, but illnesses that are not naturally caused. If a person is seen as extraverted (so outgoing and lively), but extraverted in the sense that they are ‘sensation seeking’ then they may unintentionally shape their behaviours to satisfy the needs of their extraverted personality type. This type of personality may direct the person to seek risky behaviours such as substance use or dangerous activities such as smoking or excessive alcohol use.
One thing that must not be forgotten when talking about personality, health and well-being is the impact that having a certain personality type alone can have. When I say this, I’m considering those individuals who have been diagnosed with personality disorders as this is not just seen as having more exaggerated personality characteristics in comparison to others.
Within psychology, clinicians can use the DSM-5 to diagnose people with different personality disorders. The DSM-5 provides clinicians with the basis to consider symptoms and how the disorder is affecting someone’s life considerably daily. This, in turn, allows the clinicians to support each individual and provide the level of support they need. In my personality classes, I do teach students about personality disorders, however I do this with the understanding that personality disorders are very common. I try to provide students with the appropriate information and also try to engage the students with discussions about their own views of personality, health and well-being.
Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University.