Emotional Health

Is Character Destiny?

“The fellow is a catastrophe, but that’s no reason not to find him interesting as a personality and destiny.” So wrote author Thomas Mann, in reference to a new politician on the scene. As Americans grapple with an election in which both candidates have “issues” that have discouraged voters, it is important to understand what character is, and it behooves us to distinguish between flaws vs. issues that define someone on a more fundamental level. Many people lived to regret not examining the man referred to in this quote with a more critical eye. His name was Adolph Hitler.

What is character and how much influence does it play in our lives? Once, it was something frequently referenced, as an important measure of a man — or woman. Now it is a quaint notion, almost out of fashion. New words have been substituted for it — words like “temperament” — that don’t really mean the same thing. What are the meanings of these terms and how are such things actually measured or judged?

Theories of personality date to the beginning of man’s attempt to understand himself. Many tried to tie personality to bodily processes. In the Middle Ages men were considered to have four different “humors,” biological agents in different proportions that determined us psychologically: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic. A highly “choleric” type, for example, was more or less an angry person. Sigmund Freud toyed with the idea that character might be related to the type of bumps we have on our skulls (“phrenology”) before turning his studies to more intra-psychic realms. And as recently as the mid-20th century, scientists were typing personality types to body morphology: endomorphs (fat and jolly), ectomorphs (thin and cerebral), and mesomorphs (muscular and aggressive).

A big shift occurred in the  20th century when more precise research helped determine what aspects of personality are innate, or biologically inherited, and in what proportion. Though environmental factors can always play a role in suppressing, modifying, or cultivating certain of these factors, there are five basic traits that are seen as relatively “hard-wired” and stable:

Extraversion:

Extraversion is characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.

People who are high in extroversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. People who are low in extroversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have to expend energy in social settings.

Agreeableness:

This personality dimension includes such attributes as trust, altruism, kindness, affection and other prosocial behaviors.

People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and even manipulative.

Conscientiousness:

Standard features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Those high on conscientiousness tend to be organized and mindful of details.

Neuroticism:

Neuroticism is a trait characterized by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. Individuals who are high in this trait tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, moodiness, irritability and sadness. Those low in this trait tend to be more stable and emotionally resilient.

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