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It’s Character—Not Personality—That Gives You a Healthy Life

It's Character—Not Personality—That Gives You a Healthy Life

The idea of the Type A personality is built into popular psychology, with many people who do (and who don’t) fit the definition worrying that they’re destined for a lifetime of poor heart health. Even though the entire concept is now debunked based on revelations about its flawed research basis, (yes, that’s true!) people still tend to believe that the fate of their bodies depends on the state of their personalities.

If the Type A pattern doesn’t predict health habits, though, what else about an individual’s psychological makeup could? Is it possible that although the original studies failed to stand the test of later findings, researchers could still find a link somewhere? If you’re aiming for as long and as fit a life as possible, it would be helpful to know what you could do to make this happen.

Character, Not Personality, as a Driving Force for Health

According to a new study by University of Houston’s Danielle Wilson and colleagues (2024), it’s time to bring the notion of character back into psychology, including as a predictor of health. As an “element of human flourishing,” empirical work on its value shows positive relationships to overall well-being and the ability to fulfill basic psychological needs.

Somewhat of an old-fashioned notion, the idea of character implies something moral about an individual. In its resurrection, character refers to “virtues” as “characteristics that are valued across cultures” (p. 117). Boiling these virtues down to their main elements, a measure known, appropriately, as the “CIVIC” (Comprehensive Inventory of Virtuous Instantiations of Character) taps into eight qualities: appreciation, empathy, fortitude, intellectual engagement, interpersonal consideration, sincerity, temperance, and transcendence). Breaking these down further, the CIVIC also includes measures of 29 more specific facets.

Debate in the personality field continues, however, with some researchers arguing that the CIVIC simply is a different way of measuring Five Factor traits in personality (conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, extraversion, and neuroticism). However, you can see even from the list of eight qualities that there appears to be little overlap.

Given prior research suggesting that character is a valid predictor of health outcomes, the U. Houston authors sought to investigate whether, in a head-to-head comparison, character would show additional value beyond personality traits.

Testing the Character-Health Connection

Across two studies, the first with undergraduates and the second with a representative online sample of adults (average age 34 years old), Wilson and her collaborators administered both the CIVIC and a standard personality-trait measure. The authors used a standard self-report health measure, from which they selected these areas: physical and social functioning, mental health, energy/fatigue, limitations due to physical and emotional health, pain, and general perceptions of health.

In general, at least one character score (when separated from personality) predicted every outcome except for perceived health and role limitations due to physical health. Fortitude and temperance emerged in both studies as significant predictors of health outcomes. As the quality representing “determination and sense of optimism,” fortitude could be helpful in guiding people to take action to fix things when they experience health problems. Think about how you, or someone you know, might respond to chronic pain. Being high in fortitude would lead to behaviors such as finding effective pain management, deciding to understand what’s wrong that causes the pain, and feeling that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.


Temperance, for its part, can have its own separate effects on health. “Purpose in life” could promote health in part by avoiding high-risk activities. The “emotional awareness and carefulness” that goes with this character strength could lead people to be very tuned into to the “physical ailments in daily life” that require action.

Building Your Own Character to Improve Your Health

As you think now about what character strengths you possess, how could you put them to work as a way to manage your health? The Wilson et al. study suggests that your best bet is to focus on those two qualities that emerged at the top independent of personality.

Personality Essential Reads

Beginning with fortitude, score yourself on these items from the CIVIC (Ng et al. 2018), rating each on a scale of 1 (unlike you) to 4 (like you):

Perseverance: Fierce determination in the face of obstacles

Willpower: Persistence and commitment to important goals

Zest: Enthusiasm and excitement about life

Hope: Expecting the best.

Next, rate yourself on temperance using the same scale:

Carefulness: Being cautious in decision-making

Forethought: Considering long-term consequences and all outcomes

Self-control: Suppressing undesirable impulses

Emotional awareness: Clear perception and understanding of one’s emotions.

As you look back on your ratings, perhaps you were able to come up with examples that led you to your scores. Was there a time you faced an obstacle, even a small one, that you were determined to overcome? Maybe you offered to cook a dessert for a group occasion, but nothing seemed to be working out right. Rather than give up in tears and frustration, did you allow the commitment you made to help lead you to find a path to success? Thinking about temperance, maybe there was a time you decided to head to the gym rather than give into the immediate pleasure of hanging out on your couch while you streamed the latest episode of your favorite show.

These small examples of larger character traits show that you can build your ability to see the big picture of taking care of your health while also maintaining your sense of determination and optimism. Because the qualities are so clearly tied to behaviors, they also present a more approachable way to think about how you can change than may be true of the traits within personality. You may wish you were less neurotic, but simply telling yourself not to worry so much may be a tall order at times.

To sum up, finding the pathway to well-being can involve more than just getting blood tests and visiting with your medical team. Take an inventory of your character strengths, and you can find both the determination and self-control to get you to a healthier and more fulfilling future.

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