The Best Personality Trait For Your Health

Photographed by Geordy Pearson.
How conscientious would you say you are? Maybe a little more extroverted than introverted? Perhaps a touch of neuroticism? Well, it's apparently pretty good to know — a new study suggests that these personality traits could be related to long-term health.
The study, published online last week in the Social Psychological & Personality Science journal, set out to establish a link between personality traits and the most costly and common diseases (e.g., stroke, cancer, diabetes). To do so, they matched up longitudinal personality and health data from 2006 and a 2010 follow-up with the same (almost 7,000) participants. Specifically, the researchers were monitoring the "Big Five" personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Overall, the results indicated a pretty strong relationship between personality and the development of diseases. While high levels of extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness were all linked to the absence of disease or better health, the researchers specifically called out conscientiousness as a potential protective factor against disease. But, they said, a high level of neuroticism could be a risk factor. And, these personality traits have butted heads before: Previous research revealed that those who rank highly in conscientiousness (signifying more resilience) tend to do better in physical tests of cardiovascular fitness, while those who were more neurotic didn't fare so well.
But, all of these connections are based on correlations. This means that, although some personality traits seem to be related to specific diseases, they aren't necessarily causing the development of diabetes or cancer. Instead, it's probably more likely that people who are more conscientious are also more likely to behave in a baseline healthy way, such as following their doctor's recommendations. Although the reliability of these personality traits over time is considered one of their scientific strengths, they can shift over a lifetime in response to experience and social pressure. Meaning: It's possible to become more or less conscientious or neurotic if you really want to. So, while it's not quite as fun as good ol' Myers-Briggs, this research might be a little more enlightening.
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