Personality's Role in the Protection
and Enhancement of Health:
Where the Research Has Been,
Where It Is Stuck, How It Might Move
Suzanne C. Ouellette
The City University of New York
Central Connecticut State College
There is something engaging about research on positive health outcomes. Research that seeks to explain why some people thrive, or at least remain physically and psychologically intact in the face of arduous circumstances, catches on quickly. Whether it is called a sense of coherence, hardiness, optimism, resilience, or any one of a growing number of such terms, it is the personality characteristic that promises health in spite of hardship and inspires both scientists and ordinary folk. This chapter provides an overview of such research and offers encouraging yet cautionary advice about its future. Along with the gains of research on health protective personality characteristics, both specific conceptual and methodological shortcomings within and across work are pointed out on a number of different constructs. Also noted are more general ideological concerns about why and how such personality and health research is conducted. To address both the specific and the general critique, the chapter turns to contemporary trends within personality and the broader field of psychology for ideas about future personality and health research.
The first section contains summaries of work with some of the key constructs used in health research on positive outcomes. As a unit of personality, each of these constructs represents a distinguishing characteristic in people's system of behavior and experience that is thought to be relatively long standing and expressed through their thoughts, feelings, and/or actions across the various areas of their life. The chapter reviews sense of coherence, hardiness, a set of control- related notions (including dispositional optimism, explanatory style, health locus of control, and self-efficacy), and affiliative trust. These personality constructs have been found to do one or more of the following: correlate directly with health; correlate with health-related behaviors; and minimize persons' likelihood of getting sick or sicker in the wake of stressors, including stressors that consist of acute and chronic illness conditions. For each of the personality constructs, there are basic definitions and a sketch of the theoretical background, measurement strategies, key findings, and a statement on unresolved issues.
The second section pulls back from the particular constructs to raise questions that apply to the whole research enterprise on personality and positive health outcomes. These have to do with gaps in the literature and ideological assumptions that emerge from but are typically not addressed in published