- "Successful aging" is a theme of research that emphasizes ways of supporting health, wellbeing and happiness later in life.
- Personality traits may affect a person's thoughts and behaviors throughout life with consequences for successful aging, new research shows.
- People who are high in conscientiousness, extraversion and openness to experience, and low in neuroticism, are more likely to age successfully.
The belief that aging is all downhill is one that’s fairly well ingrained in most people’s minds. How many jokes have you made about losing your memory, strength, and ability to keep up with technology? Does every birthday signal to you that you’re getting closer to that undesirable end state? When you think about the older people you know, do you let your negative view of aging affect the way you regard them?
Countering these pessimistic views about the aging process and older people is the idea that you can actually improve over the years in these key qualities. Introduced into the vernacular of psychology over 20 years ago, the term “successful aging” implies that there’s a way to avoid that downhill trajectory as the years and decades go by. Although there are various meanings attached to the term, its basic premise is that some people find a way to navigate later life in a way that maximizes their health and happiness.
According to Geneva University’s Cornelia Pocnet and colleagues (2021), the route to successful aging might very well require having a certain type of personality. Working from the standpoint of the five-factor model (whose traits are neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness), the Swiss research team note that personality traits may “influence the individual’s thinking, acting, and feelings over the course of their lifespan, with substantial consequences for different central domains of functioning and well-being.”
Why Would Personality Help You Age Successfully?
Pocnet et al. believe that personality is a key influence on successful aging not just because people with certain traits sit around and think about aging differently than do those with other traits. To have an influence on your health and well-being, personality has to affect the things you do. Does your personality make you more or less likely to take advantage of certain health-promoting strategies? Do you have traits that lead other people to view you in a more positive way? Are your relationships better as a result?
In addition to affecting your behavior, the Swiss authors propose, personality could also affect how well your self-knowledge, or identity, influences the plans you make about your future. The better able you are to make these plans, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to live your life in a way that supports and sustains you through tough times. In this sense, personality can also affect “the resilience to better adapt to life’s challenges.”
Testing the Personality-Successful Aging Connection
Using a systematic review of the published literature covering the years 2000 to 2020, Pocnet and her colleagues searched for all journal articles that included the key terms of “successful aging,” “personality,” “health,” “well-being,” and “quantitative studies.” The final set of 76 studies met all of these rigorous criteria.
Turning now to the findings of their review, the authors organized the results according to the five factors in the model, yielding the following relationships between personality and successful aging:
It might strike you that people high in conscientiousness would age more successfully because they simply take better care of themselves. Indeed, the review of the published literature supported this basic idea but also expanded on why this would be the case. As indicated in several articles the Swiss authors cite, highly conscientious people, specifically those high in self-discipline, are more likely to maintain a balanced diet, abstain from smoking and use of drugs, prepare for future adversities, and are just plain better at adjusting to change.
Highly conscientious people do more than just take good care of themselves. Other people see them as reliable and are therefore more likely to enter into close and trusting relationships, as the authors note.
There can be a downside to high conscientiousness, though, if individuals are high in the component of perfectionism or “compulsive persistence." From a biological standpoint, these perfectionistic people don’t do well when it comes to aging. They actually have higher rates of mortality due, some studies suggest, to a greater physiological response to stress. Their “inability to disengage from an impossible, stressful task” leads their endocrine system to produce more stress hormones, which then take their toll on the body’s functioning.
Consider your own reaction to certain stress-related aging experiences. How upset do you get when an aching back means that you can’t run around as actively as you’d like to? What about when you’re faced with discrimination because your hair is, or is turning, gray? Becoming upset about phenomena related to aging only increases the likelihood that you’ll become even more stressed.
When it comes to stress, neuroticism is more likely the personality trait that becomes problematic. As the authors conclude: neuroticism “is associated with more difficulties coping with life challenges…, poor lifestyle choices such as limited food intake control…, smoking…, and general etiologic factors, which make individuals vulnerable and could lead to a foreshortened life.” There are also a host of diseases linked to neuroticism including cardiovascular disease and, perhaps most concerning of all, Alzheimer’s disease.
Although not all extraverts are optimists, those who are high on this facet of the trait seem to have a number of advantages when it comes to aging successfully. Not only do optimists have better emotion regulation, as the authors note, but research investigating this personality quality suggests that they are better at planning, are higher in acceptance, and — as the term implies — focus on the positive. There is also a downside to optimism, though, when things don’t work out as people hope. They may overestimate their ability to succeed and then become frustrated when their success is thwarted by factors outside their control (similar to those high in perfectionism).
Those extraverts high in the social component of this trait benefit from their gregariousness, according to research the Swiss authors cite. Their support networks tend to be larger, helping them find people to help them through difficult times. Additionally, extraversion may be “protective against loneliness, social withdrawal, and isolation,” and as such, has a “powerful” role “even in very old individuals with little resources.”
Openness to Experience
The ability to play with ideas, thoughts, and feelings as well as the tendency to enjoy the arts appears to form part of the powerful personality that predicts successful aging, according to the Swiss author team. These individuals seek out stimulating environments, enhancing their “cognitive engagement and flexibility.” They may, as a result, be more resistant to the effects of aging on the brain, and even if they have Alzheimer’s disease, may show less cognitive impairment than their more closed-minded counterparts.
The more easy-natured individuals high in agreeableness would seem to be more likely to age successfully than their grumpier peers, but as Pocnet et al. note, there’s little solid evidence to support this notion. It might seem that the highly agreeable would have more extensive social networks, as they would be more pleasant to be around. Perhaps one of the least well-investigated personality traits, though, any suggestions about its role in successful aging for now remains speculative. In the meantime, there's probably no harm in being nice.
Can You Improve Your Personality with Time?
After reading about these potential influences of personality on your ability to age successfully, a natural question might be whether you can up your chances of living well in your later years by working on your own problematic traits. The good news is, according to Pocnet and her fellow researchers, you just might be able to do so: “personality can be understood as a developmental construct that by nature is subject to change and adaptation over the lifespan.” The traits that are working to your advantage can continue to do so, but if there are others that aren’t, there seems to be hope.
Your personality isn’t the only psychological quality that can influence your ability to age successfully. As noted in the discussion of extraversion and conscientiousness, your social network also comes into play as an influence on how you age if you decide to put effort into expanding yours.
Additionally, you can engage in deliberate attempts to change your outlook on life and yourself through such interventions as learning to practice mindfulness, engaging in cognitive training programs and, particularly in the case of high neuroticism, becoming involved in psychotherapy. In the words of the authors: “Learning to explore the inner world and develop multiple perspectives on the same life situation can lead to flexibility and resilience that, in turn, have benefits for successful aging.”
To sum up, this extensive review of studies on personality and successful aging suggests that you do have the power to age well if you can tap into those qualities that improve your health, outlook on life, and relationships. Fulfillment throughout life is possible, regardless of your age, if you can engage your personality in ways that enhance your ability to manage whatever may come your way.
Facebook image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Pocnet, C., Popp, J., & Jopp, D. (2021). The power of personality in successful ageing: A comprehensive review of larger quantitative studies. European Journal of Aging, 18(2), 269-285. doi:10.1007/s10433-020-00575-6