What Makes a “Healthy” Personality?

Do you ever meet someone who just seems remarkably free of stress and comfortable with themselves? You might come away wondering whether there’s a certain set of personality traits that predisposes some people to be happy and successful no matter what life throws their way.

This idea is one that’s long appealed to psychologists, as the authors of a new paper on the “healthy personality” point out.

For example, Gordon Allport, a founder of modern personality psychology, hypothesized that the “mature person” has traits like realism, a sense of direction, a strong identity, and the ability to maintain warm relationships with others. The developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson put it more succinctly, saying that a psychologically healthy person is one who has the ability both to “love and work.”

But what do psychology researchers today consider a “healthy personality”? To find out, the authors of the paper surveyed 137 experts in the field of personality psychology. They asked the experts to consider 30 different personality traits, rating how likely each trait was to be part of a “healthy personality.”

There were several traits that the experts consistently rated as corresponding to a healthy personality. These included being open to one’s own feelings and a tendency toward experiencing positive emotions, as well as having a sense of competence. In interactions with others, the experts surveyed saw a healthy personality as one marked by straightforwardness and warmth.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were a few traits that were rated as antithetical to a healthy personality. These included being prone to feelings of angry hostility and vulnerability, as well as a tendency toward depressiveness.

After polling personality psychologists to put together this profile of a healthy personality, the researchers decided to put the theory of the healthy personality to the test by seeing if people with “healthy” personality traits actually experienced more positive life outcomes. They did so by administering personality tests to over 2,000 college students and seeing how well students’ personality traits aligned with the profile of the healthy personality.

They found that students with more “healthy” personality traits tended to have higher self-esteem, a more solid sense of self and higher levels of optimism. These students were also less prone to aggressive behavior.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the healthy personality profile was highly, although not perfectly, correlated with the average personality, suggesting that some of the benefits of the “healthy” personality might have to do with having a “normal” personality.

Overall, it’s worth keeping in mind that the healthy personality profile assembled in the study is a simplification. It’s possible for someone with an “ideal” personality profile to have glaring holes in other aspects of their mental health, just as it’s likely possible for someone who doesn’t meet the stereotypical healthy personality profile to have good overall mental health. But the results of the study do suggest that, to some extent, having certain personality traits like warmth and positivity might make it more probable that someone will be able to build a life that makes them happy.