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Impact on Mental Health: Personality Traits & Characteristic Adaptations
The World Health Organization (2011) defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (para. 1). Although psychological well-being can be defined as the lack of symptoms of distress (i.e., lack of depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of mental disorders), well-being has become increasingly recognised as more than just the lack of distress (Keyes & Magyar-Moe, 2003). The aim of recent models related to positive functioning has been to identify, cultivate, and enhance an individual’s capabilities and strengths with the aim of increasing well-being, as well as protecting against symptoms of distress (Office of the Surgeon General, 1999).
Within personality and individual differences research there are two streams of investigation attempting to identify factors that contribute to the prediction of mental health. The first relates to basic personality traits and the second view pertains to characteristic adaptations. The current thesis thus brings together two lines of research: positive psychology and personality psychology. This introductory chapter will endeavour to briefly distinguish between personality traits and characteristic adaptations with a specific focus on their relationships with mental health. Furthermore, future-orientation will be introduced as a possible characteristic adaptation that might influence individuals’ well-being. However, we begin this chapter with a discussion on dispositional traits.
Personality traits are usually considered to be relatively stable, biologically based, and resistant to external social input (Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005; McCrae & Costa, 2008; McCrae et al., 2000). Previous research has indicated traits to be important predictors of various outcomes, including a variety of health risk behaviours (Trobst, Herbst, Masters, & Costa, 2002; Terracciano & Costa, 2004), marital satisfaction and stability (Kelly & Conley, 1987), emotional experience (Terracciano, McCrae, & Costa, 2003), and well-being (Costa & McCrae, 1980; Steel, Schmidt, & Shultz, 2008). In comparison to other constructs such as age, income, and education, personality traits have a much greater influence on subjective well being (Costa & McCrae, 1984). Similarly, findings by Ryff and colleagues (Keyes, Shmotkin, & Ryff, 2002; Schmutte & Ryff, 1997) also indicate the strong association between personality traits and psychological well-being.
McCrae recently (2011) suggested that since personality traits are stable their effect on well-being is also stable and as such well-being is fixed. Given that it is the aim of positive psychology to enhance positive mental functioning (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Sheldon & King, 2001), the statement by McCrae might be perceived as a barrier to success. In fact some positive psychologists acknowledge this challenge (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). That being said, recent empirical work has brought this into question. Not only has there been noted variability and change in the traits themselves (Piedmont, 2001; Terracciano Costa, & McCrae, 2006), at least a third of well-being at any given time is not related to personality traits (Steel, Schmidt, & Shultz, 2008). Although McCrae (2011) acknowledges the possibility for some change in traits, there is uncertainty as to how these changes occur, how much change occurs, and the duration of these changes. Nonetheless, within the Five Factor Theory, personality traits are entirely based on biology (McCrae, 2011). That is, similar traits containing similar structures (e.g. higher order traits and facets) are found in various cultures (McCrae et al., 2005). These traits are not influenced by shared environments (Bouchard & Loehlin, 2001), they have a high degree of stability in adulthood (Terracciano, Costa, & McCrae, 2006), and past events seem to have very little impact on traits that are enduring (Terracciano et al., 2005). Due to the robustness of these findings McCrae (2011) went so far as to suggest that traits themselves are not easily amenable to psychological interventions. If personality only consisted of traits there would be no other option but to attempt a change of traits. Personality, however, is a far more complex entity and as such most positive psychological research focuses on the identification and change of characteristic adaptations.
Due to the stability of traits and their resistance to change, enhancing well-being through interventions aimed at traits seems improbable (McCrae, 2011). A far more promising approach is to identify and change human strengths (Mascaro & Rosen, 2005) or what McCrae (2011) refers to as characteristic adaptations. While personality traits refer to basic tendencies, characteristic adaptations place emphasis on motivational aspects such as attitudes, roles, goals, relationships, and habits (McAdams & Pals, 2006). It is believed that individuals are self-regulating and as such can manage their lives through the change or utilisation of their strengths or characteristic adaptations.
Within the scientific study of human strengths there is an attempt to obtain an understanding of how the strengths displayed by the “average person” can result in increased thriving and success (Sheldon & King, 2001). With a focus on individuals’ potential, motives, and capabilities, research in positive psychology focuses on the development of interventions that increase well-being and decrease discomfort (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). This has been supported by one of the worlds’ leading personality researchers, Robert McCrae (2011). He suggested rather than focusing on personality traits as agents of change, attempts to increase psychological functioning should focus on changing the habits, goals, and attitudes that also guide behaviour and experiences.
Various psychological areas, including psychotherapy and positive psychology, have implemented this idea. For instance, in a recovery-oriented approach mostly utilised in psychiatric hospitals, instead of focusing on the belief that individuals with mental illnesses will suffer lifelong problems, individuals are encouraged to rely on self-determination and strengths in their attempts to overcome obstacles. Such therapeutic treatments focus on moving beyond the acceptance of these symptoms of distress, instead focusing on already existing skills or skills that can be developed in order to increase well-being (Office of the Surgeon General, 1999). Similarly, Harkness and McNulty (2002) advised clinicians to assist their clients/patients in the development of new characteristic adaptations that are in accordance with their personality, but are a more effective response to their life circumstances. Integrating this approach to mental health into treatment plans would theoretically help individuals dealing with mental illness move from a state of surviving to a state of thriving. Many positive psychologists have used a similar approach. For example, in their attempts to define that which might increase happiness Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) suggest a change of intentional activities that can be cognitive, behavioural, and volitional. In the short term these changes would only affect behaviour. But, when sustained over longer periods of time this might induce the adoption of new cognitions, patterns of behaviour, goals, and plans, in essence new characteristic adaptations. For this strategy to be viable the right characteristic adaptations (which will vary across individuals) need to be identified and developed. One such characteristic is the human mind’s ability to think about and act upon the future.
Individuals tend to think about what is likely to happen in the future. They have aims and preferences, put a great deal of effort into the realisation of these aims and preferences, and may even have regrets when the future does not turn out the way they had hoped (Seginer, 2009). To be oriented towards the future requires the utilisation of an extensive array of psychological resources. These include motivational processes such as values, interests, and goals, as well as cognitive processes such as the regulation of behaviour, planning, and anticipation. Similarly, individuals also experience emotional processes that include hope, despair, pessimism, and optimism. In using these skills we try to anticipate the future and the impact it might have on us and those close to us. When deciding on current actions several aspects are considered including the expected consequences, the short versus long term payoff, various standards, and the expected aims (Bruininks & Malle, 2005).
Although multiple approaches enrich the research of any area within psychology, they also unintentionally lead to the use of diversified terminology and various methods of assessment. For the purpose of this thesis the term that will be used to describe the construction of mental images related to a desired future is future-orientation, which refers to “subjective images individuals construct about the future” (Seginer, 2009, p. viii). Over the last few decades, researchers have proposed several constructs in the conceptualisation and measurement of future-orientation. Two such constructs are the Hope and Personal Growth Initiative (PGI; Robitschek, 1998). Although some define Hope as a multidimensional resource for adaptive coping (Herth, 1991), others simply define Hope as the belief that a positive future is possible (Dufault & Martacchio, 1985). Regardless of the definition used, the majority of the definitions include a temporal component, usually referring to the future. The most comprehensive definition, however, has been provided by Snyder (1995) who views Hope as a cognitive process in which goals are identified and pursued. Hope (Snyder, 2002) represents a person’s tendency to realise the areas in which change is needed, resulting in the construction of routes that facilitate this change, while having the agency to constantly utilise the routes and maintain movement towards the objective. Similarly, Personal Growth Initiative has recently (Robitschek et al., 2012) been proposed as a multifaceted quality that consists of cognitive and behavioural dimensions related to the intentional and active desire to engage in personal growth across various life domains. As such, PGI (Robitschek et al., 2012) is suggestive of individuals’ readiness for development, their capacity to engage in purposeful thinking, intentional behaviour, and utilisation of resources. Inherent in both of approaches is the ability to utilise one of the most basic behavioural regulation methods, goal setting, in order to enhance positive mental functioning. When individuals are actively engaging in future thinking and behaviour related to the future they make the future more amenable and aim to actualise certain expectations, experiences, and options (Seginer, 2009). Through anticipation of the future and aiming at a particular future one can predict one’s own development and direct it. Central to future-orientation is the construction of goals which represents individuals’ desired outcomes (Austin & Vancouver, 1996). Due to goals ability to direct attention, mobilise effort, prolong persistence, and assist in the development of new learning strategies (Locke & Latham, 1985; 1990) they are vital to the increase of performance and well-being. This is due to the positive emotions experienced when progress is made or goals are attained (Diener, Suh, Lucas & Smith, 1999). Similarly, an increase in well-being can result in the development of more self concordant goals, which in turn creates more opportunities for attainment (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001).
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