An important study was recently published by Laura Kubzansky of the Harvard School of Public Health and her colleagues. They looked at longitudinal data from a diverse sample of individuals from the Providence area, They goal was to investigate whether childhood personality characteristics predicted adult physical health. Research participants were 569 individuals originally studied at age 7 and then decades later at age 35.
Childhood personality characteristics were measured by raters who observed the children and how they actually behaved. Adult health was assessed in two ways: the individual's own judgment of his or her health as excellent, good, fair, or poor, and the number of doctor-diagnosed serious illnesses, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis, stroke, bleeding ulcer, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.
Statistical analyses included the usual suspect controls (e.g., childhood health, childhood family socioeconomic status, gender, and ethnicity). Even with these controls, two childhood personality characteristics predicted adult health assessed by self-report and by diagnosed illnesses. Children high on attention - defined as staying focused on a task and persisting at problem solving - had better health as adults, as did children low on distress-proneness - defined as reacting to events with negative emotions, These associations were modest in size but reliable and rather remarkable given all the other factors that can and do affect physical health.
When our parents told my brother and me as children to "pay attention" and to "be happy" we should have heeded their advice. Of course, the advice would have been more helpful if they had also told us how to pay attention and how to be happy, but this is where contemporary positive psychology is useful. As researchers turn their attention to deliberate interventions that cultivate components of the good life, practical strategies are indeed being identified.
The implication of the research by Kubzansky and colleagues is that it may never be too early to start to use these strategies. Indeed, as these researchers themselves concluded, early interventions may pay more dividends than later ones because the behavior of children may be easier to change and further because the passage of time can set into operation unhealthy spirals.
Kubzansky, L. D., Martin, L. D., & Buka, S. L. (2009). Early manifestations of personality and adult health: A life course perspective. Health Psychology, 28, 364-372.