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Healthy Balance

Who Lives Well? Understanding What Makes People Flourish

While some people thrive throughout their lifetimes, other struggle.

Peggy Kern, postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania
Peggy Kern, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, researches well-being.

Peggy Kern, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to know why.

Her research seeks to answer fundamental questions she posed to UVA employees during a recent presentation.

“How can we understand who lives a healthier life than others?” she asks. “How can we help people live the best life they can within whatever circumstances they have?”

To answer those questions, it’s important to adopt a lifespan perspective, or in other words, understand “where a person’s been, where they are now and where they’re going,” Kern says.

Extraverted? Agreeable? Linking Personality and Health

Using the Terman Life Cycle Study, Kern looked at how five personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and intellect — are linked to a person’s health and well-being over time.

The Terman study began in 1922 with 1,528 gifted children. It followed up with the participants in intervals of five to ten years throughout their lives, building a comprehensive collection of interviews and questionnaires about a wide array of topics.

Kern found elements of the participants’ personalities at age 30 predicted measures of wellbeing 45 years later at age 75.

For example, those high in extraversion and agreeableness at age 30 reported higher levels of social competence and subjective well-being at age 75.

Kern also found that conscientiousness predicted longer life, which prompted to her combine the results of 20 studies with more than 9,000 participants that measured both traits.

“It wasn’t always significant, but it was always protective,” she says. “Conscientiousness had a stronger effect than socioeconomic status or intelligence. It produced a two to four year difference in when people died.”

Kern also found other ways that personality influenced well-being in the Terman study participants:

  • People who were more successful in their careers tended to live longer, but conscientiousness made a difference: Unsuccessful but highly conscientious people also had a lower mortality risk.
  • Men who scored high in neuroticism were less active than men who scored lower, but neuroticism made no difference for women.

“Oftentimes we look at someone at a single point in time and try to tell them what to do,” Kern says. “But that doesn’t take into account who they are as a person and where they are in their life journey. Understanding that is important.”

By looking at personality, “we can start to tailor things in ways that are going to better fit with intervention and hopefully be more effective,” Kern says.

“When personality is ignored, interventions can be shortsighted, wasting precious time, energy, and resources,” she says.

Well-being: Lack of Disease or Something More?

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, Kern’s work is part of a shift in focus from traditional psychology’s mission to eradicate mental illness to positive psychology.

“In positive psychology, we’re saying neutral is not enough,” she says. “We want people to thrive. We focus on what’s going good in life and how we can start to build more of that.”

Kern’s latest work has focused on social and mental well-being, specifically “how we can use measures as a way to shift some of these perspectives,” she says.

The first step to improving well-being is to measure it, Kern says.

“We measure what we value and we value what we measure,” she says.

To that end, Kern worked with other well-being experts to develop a brief questionnaire to measure five areas of well-being — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

They also developed a similar measure for adolescents.

“Using the measures, we can compare things, gain insight and provide a metric of change,” Kern says.

In recent studies, Kern measured well-being in the workplace and in general.

“Feeling engaged and positive relationships with coworkers were most important for job satisfaction,” she says. “For life satisfaction, a sense of meaning was much more important.”

Kern also recently partnered with linguists and computer scientists to look at “big data” from social media.

The studies revealed that the words people use correlate to personality traits, life satisfaction, and likelihood of disease.

Overall, Kern has an important goal for her research.

“We hope to figure out who lives well and help more people do that,” she says.

Tips for Your Wisdom and Well-Being

Kern’s presentation was the first in the Wisdom and Well-being Speaker Series, sponsored jointly by the Center for Appreciative Practice, School of Nursing and Mindfulness Center.

“This series is intended to start a conversation across our health system about how we can become our very best selves together,” says Dorrie Fontaine, dean of the UVA School of Nursing. “We want wisdom and well-being to be a signature of the health system.”

Presentations are free and include lunch.

View additional dates and speakers in the series.

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