Personality and Meaning as Therapeutic Tools

In my January 5, 2012 post on "When  Do We Stop Changing?" I mentioned the work of Dan McAdams the head of Northwestern University's Psychology Department whose major field of interest appears to be personality psychology. I didn't know what that was, but it sounded interesting, so I started to read some of his published work.

We're different from the rest

But before I got very far, I need to clarify some background words for myself. For instance what's the formal definition of personality and what are personality traits? I started with the appropriate webpage of the American Psychological Association(APA). Their take on personality is "individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving."  Hmm... that made sense to me once I went through the wording slowly: so you and I each have our own habitual ways we react to life and those affect how we differ from each other in how we think, what we feel about life events and how we behave.

But then came the subject of personality "traits" and even the APA wouldn't give me a clear-cut answer. Many places I looked made the typical error of defining a word by using the same word, e.g, a personality trait is a trait that..." I found an online definition: attitudes, behaviors and actions a person possesses or exhibits. But how is that different from the overall concept of personality? My Mac's own built-in dictionary did a better job: it says a trait is a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person.

The APA website did have a short discussion of which traits predict job performance; it mentioned the "Big Five:" being an extravert, agreeable, displaying conscientiousness, having emotional stability and staying open to experience. But having interpersonal skills is sometimes even more important in predicting job success and conscientiousness may work just fine in ordinary jobs, but less so in those that require a high degree of creativity.

The Huffington Post in a July 6, 2012 piece titled "6 Personality traits Associated with Longevity," delved into some of those factors that are common among the long-lived among us. They mentioned studies for each one, but in brief the fab six are being conscientious, easy to laugh, optimistic, socially connected, extroverted and happy.

Then I went back to McAdams' work and read a 2006 article he published in a journal called Narrative Inquiry, " The role of narrative in personality psychology today,"and his chapter titled "Personal Narratives and the Life Story" in the 2008 Handbook of personality: theory and research

The entire field is termed personality psychology.  Interestingly the word comes from the Latin term persona, meaning mask. But it doesn't imply a mask to conceal; rather a one that typifies. It's defined as focusing on major individual differences in our behavior and experience. Our largest changes happen in early adulthood to age 40, but we continue to adapt and alter our personality, to lesser extents, even in old age.

McAdams feels we, as a species, are story tellers, from the time we can speak coherently, and much of what we tell as stories, at least in our Western culture, is our own life. We tell them to other people, retell and retell them (hopefully to different people) and they alter over time as our memory is, in all but a few individuals, not perfect. In doing so we help make clear the emotional content of our experiences, primarily for our own benefit.

Roberts and Mroczek, in a 2008 article available online through the NIH Public Access website, appear to dovetail with some of McAdams' views. They note that middle-aged individuals, when compared to younger adults, are generally more agreeable and conscientious while scoring lower in extraversion, neuroticism and openness; they mention that those among us who are psychologically mature at earlier ages generally have more effective relationships and do well at their work; they also tend to be healthier and live longer.

McAdams and others would view the life story as a therapeutic tool to be "reformulated and repaired." He presents a five-sided framework for personality involving human nature, traits, adaptations (e.g., motives, goals, values, strategies), life stories and culture. He notes Western life stories are more self-centered while those from Chinese subjects (Wang and Conway 2004) more often presented moral messages based on past events.

Can we find meaning in even the worst life experiences?

I went back to my copy of Viktor Frankl's great book, Man's Search for Meaning, telling of his experience in Nazi death camps during WWII; his mother, father, brother and wife died or were sent to the gas ovens, but he and his sister survived. He founded logotherapy (therapy through meaning), a new approach to psychological issues, and The American Journal of Psychiatry called his blend of science and humanism, "Perhaps the most significant thinking since Freud and Adler."

I don't know what he would think of personality psychology, but his own Life Story brought about changes that were incredibly influential in helping others.


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