According to research published in the journal Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there are 10 healthy personality traits that are key for your mental well-being. In the first of three studies, researchers asked 137 experts in trait psychology to describe their idea of a psychologically healthy person using the NEO Psychological Inventory, Revised, which groups 240 items into 30 narrower personality traits. This inventory is also a longer version of the NEO-Five-Factor Inventory that examines a person's Big Five personality traits.
What are the Big Five personality traits?
The Big Five has become a popular personality indicator that can "be used for individuals to learn about themselves and their strengths, or it can be used by organizations to predict success," Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist who specializes in personality frameworks, previously told Well+Good. The Big Five quiz (here's a free one you can take online) includes a series of questions that you can respond to with a range of answers between "disagree strongly" and "agree strongly." Based on your answers, you'll learn where on a spectrum of zero to 100 you fall on the Big Five personality traits:
- Openness to experience
The 10 personality traits of a psychologically healthy person
Crucially, the Big Five test won't tell you whether you're extroverted, for example, but whether you score low in extraversion. Because of this, the study researchers (mentioned above) set out to get a more in-depth understanding of what constitutes a "healthy personality," based on levels of given traits, many of which connect to the Big Five. According to the report, "healthy personality functioning can be best characterized by high levels of openness to feelings, positive emotions, and straightforwardness, and low levels on all facets of neuroticism."
On a more granular level, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, names 10 specific personality traits in Scientific American. And thus, the 10 personality traits of a psychologically healthy person were established. (To see where you fall on the scale, you can take an online test created by Dr. Kaufman).
While knowing the characteristics of a healthy person can create more mindfulness around certain thoughts and behaviors moving forward, it helps to have psychological trait examples. With that in mind, below, existential and trauma-based psychotherapist Cristalle Hayes, who is the author of Angry Mother Assertive Mother: From Maternal Anger to Radical Repair, explains what each trait pertains to and how each of the 10 personality traits lend to an overly psychologically healthy mentality.
1. Openness to feelings
“Openness to feelings means that we are not afraid of our feelings,” says Hayes. “We trust and accept our emotions and use them to guide and inform us. When we are afraid of our feelings or battling with them, we may tend to suppress or manage our emotions through substances that can have a devastating impact on our lives. Being open to the feelings of others means we can connect with others and be more intimate in our relationships.”
“When someone is being straightforward or authentic, we are cultivating authentic and genuine relationships with others,” says Hayes. “We are not manipulating ourselves or others. We are entering a genuine relationship. Having authentic relationships means bringing more connection and intimacy into our lives.”
“When we feel competent, we are not in a place of shame and feelings of inadequacy,” says Hayes. “Feeling competent is feeling that ‘I am okay.’ Feeling competent generates warm feelings about who we are in the world, which is great for self-esteem. When we feel competent, we are less likely to avoid situations that make us feel incompetent or overcompensate to prove ourselves and our worth.”
“Warmth generates intimacy and connection,” says Hayes. “People are more likely to trust us and feel good around us. When we are psychologically healthy, it is easier to be friendlier and more affectionate because we trust each other.”
5. Positive emotions
“When we experience joy, it gives us room to breathe,” says Hayes. “It is a childlike, carefree feeling. When we feel love, joy, and excitement, that brings a level of vulnerability. When we don’t allow these feelings to happen, they may make us feel vulnerable to disappointment. Again, it is about trusting a situation and a feeling and accepting it and allowing ourselves freedom in joy.”
6. Low levels of angry hostility
“Anger and hostility can be destructive to our relationships,” Hayes says. “Humans are meant to connect, and hostility creates a disconnect: anger, unreflected upon, impacts our health and body.”
7. Low anxiety
“A little bit of anxiety is helpful as it tells us something about a situation and helps us exercise caution or perceive risk,” Hayes says. “But if we feel too much anxiety, we limit ourselves and avoid situations. Our comfort zone becomes small, and we do not live with a sense of freedom and safety.”
8. Low depression
“A psychologically healthy person has more flexibility in thinking and can see the shades of gray in situations,” Hayes says. “When we feel depressed, we can experience a lot of intrusive negative thoughts. Our thoughts become more black and white and very fixed.”
9. Low vulnerability to stress
“Low vulnerability to stress means we are facing life with more resilience,” says Hayes. “When life throws us something stressful, we feel more competent to deal with it. We can also be more discerning about what stress to take on board. Underneath, we are more in control, more proactive and less reactive.”
10. Low impulsivity
“Low impulsivity makes us more psychologically healthy as it means that we are more grounded and empowered and in control of our reactions, and less reliant on outside sources,” Hayes says.
Key factors that influence healthy personality traits
When it comes to this list of character traits—and especially if you’ve scored less than favorably on any of them—it’s important not to take them entirely at face value. “Rather, dive into the intricacies of each and ask how they can contribute to psychological well-being,” says Caroline Fenkel, MSS, DSW, LCSW, co-founder and chief clinical officer of Charlie Health, an online mental health clinic for teens and young adults. “For example, while it is important that we stay open to feelings, it’s also necessary that we are able to observe our feelings without being attached to them. Feelings aren't facts. This is a critical component of being able to take on stress, adversity, and life in general as it comes. We also have to be willing to talk about these feelings with others in order to make sure we don't isolate and insulate ourselves within our own heads.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that many of these healthy personality traits boil down to nature vs. nurture, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. “In many ways, warmth is a learned trait as opposed to a genetic one,” Dr. Fenkel says. “You need to be raised by warmth and surrounded by it in order to learn how to express it. If not, you'll have to learn later in life, which can be more challenging than having it embedded into your personality from a young age. The same goes for low levels of anger and hostility. In order to be a calm and measured person in the face of anger (which is a natural emotion and response), you have to have been raised without anger and hostility. The way you learn to respond to stress begins very early in development. Not leading with anger is a trait that, with time and practice, can be cultivated as an adult.”
You don't have to have all those personality traits to have a healthy life, though, Dr. Kaufman is quick to point out. Rather, "the key determination [for psychological health] is the extent to which low scores on this profile block you from reaching your personal goals," he says.
In two additional studies, the researchers compared these trait profiles to over 3,000 students, and found that the traits were associated with greater life satisfaction, more self-esteem, self-sufficiency, being more optimistic, having less anger and aggression, and having more self-control. But what can you do if you don't score high naturally in these traits?
The good news is that you're not doomed to live a life without healthy personality traits, no matter what your natural personality makeup is. It's possible that you can mindfully shift facets of your personality over time to work in better alignment with your goals. For instance, if you can identify that you're closed off to feelings, then you can be more mindful of opening up to vulnerabilities moving forward. While you may never change your natural inclinations (nor should you—your unique predispositions are what makes you, you!), being aware of where you fall on the scale of healthy personality traits can help you, well, level up how mentally healthy you can be.
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