Learning This One Trait Can Help You Rediscover Your Psychological Center

Psychologist Lisa Best discusses her new research on mindfulness and its many healing powers.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 6, 2022

A new study published in Acta Psychologica finds that dispositional mindfulness, or the ability to focus on the present moment and be aware of inner and outer experiences before acting, can help promote the emotional and physical well-being of an individual.

This trait, according to the researchers, can be developed through mindfulness-based exercises or therapies.

I recently spoke to Lisa Best, a researcher at the University of New Brunswick in Canada to discuss this new study. Here is the summary of our conversation:

What inspired you to investigate the topic of mindful personalities, how did you study it, and what did you find?

The overall focus of our laboratory is to determine how specific psychosocial factors, including mindfulness, affect psychological and physical wellness.

We have conducted research in healthy individuals and those who report various health concerns, including in samples of individuals living with traumatic brain injury, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and disordered eating.

Although these groups of people are diverse, particularly compared to the general population, we have noticed many common associations; some individuals living with a chronic condition report better functioning and overall quality of life than others living with the same ailment.

To understand these patterns, we examined the varying levels of dispositional mindfulness and personality in different populations.

How do you define dispositional mindfulness?

Dispositional mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment and act purposefully.

A mindful individual can be aware of their inner and outer experiences and behave productively even during stressful situations.

Importantly, mindfulness involves not only noticing these thoughts and feelings but also withholding judgment related to these experiences.

Mindful individuals can recognize that there are no "good" or "bad" thoughts or feelings.

Dispositional mindfulness can be developed through mindfulness-based exercises or therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

Your research talks about the relationship between mindfulness and personality. Can you explain how they are related?

Mindfulness and personality are consistently associated in research.

Many of these studies focus on the "Big Five" personality factors:

  • Emotional Stability
  • Extraversion
  • Conscientiousness
  • Agreeableness
  • And, open-mindedness.

We were interested in extending this research to include the more nuanced "facets" of personality that are defined by different components of the broader factor. For example, much of the previous research focused on factor-level Conscientiousness.

To expand that research, we focused on Organization, Productiveness, and Responsibility, which are facets of Conscientiousness.

Our findings replicated previous research showing that aspects of dispositional mindfulness and personality facets are related to emotional regulation and self-awareness.

Statistical analyses allowed us to group specific aspects of dispositional mindfulness and personality. The Self-Regulation function included the facets of mindfulness describing, acting with awareness, non-judging of and non-reacting to inner experiences, as well as facets of conscientiousness (productiveness, responsibility), extraversion (energy level, assertiveness), and the absence of facets related to emotional instability (anxiety, depression, and emotional volatility).

Overall, individuals high in self-regulation can focus on individual goals and dismiss unpleasant experiences.

Second, the Self-Awareness cluster refers to being self-aware of internal experiences and includes the aspects of mindfulness focused on describing and observing as well as facets of open-mindedness (intellectual curiosity, aesthetic sensitivity, and creative imagination). Individuals high in self-awareness can express their creativity and better absorb information from their internal and external environments.

The exciting thing about these findings is that although personality is perceived as relatively stable throughout an individual's life, dispositional mindfulness can be malleable through mindfulness-based exercises or therapies such as ACT.

Because dispositional mindfulness and personality are so interrelated, we hypothesize that the adverse effects of having an innate tendency to experience emotional instability may be mitigated by increasing dispositional mindfulness.

How does mindfulness affect the physical health of a person?

Previous research indicates that mindful people tend to engage in several health-promoting behaviors, such as healthy eating and better sleep hygiene, and are more likely to report overall better physical health.

Naturally, an individual who can accept and observe their inner and outer events without judgment and behave purposefully is more likely to engage in daily health behaviors, which likely leads to better physical health outcomes. In our study, individuals who were classified into a self-regulation cluster had better physical health outcomes than those who were in a dysregulation cluster.

How does mindfulness affect the psychological health of a person?

Dispositional mindfulness is related to psychological health through three trajectories.

Dispositional mindfulness is negatively associated with psychopathological symptoms (i.e., depression), maladaptive coping mechanisms (i.e., rumination) and is positively related to better emotional regulation processes.

Due to the strong interdependence between physical and psychological health, the influence of dispositional mindfulness in one can improve the other.

For instance, mindful individuals are more resilient to life stress, decreasing the likelihood of developing physical ailments, such as cardiovascular disease and impaired immune systems, and psychological distress, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone seeking to achieve a mindful personality?

Although the current study did not focus on specific techniques that are effective in increasing levels of dispositional mindfulness, we can confirm the positive influence of having a "mindful personality."

Our participants who were classified into the Self-Regulation cluster had generally better physical, emotional, and social functioning, as well as more positive perceptions of general health.

These results confirm research indicating that self-regulatory processes stemming from the early development of personality traits positively influence health behaviors and outcomes.

How does a mindful personality differ from someone who doesn't have those traits? What positive/negative impacts does it have?

Participants who had higher levels of dispositional mindfulness had generally better physical, emotional, and social functioning and more positive perceptions of general health. These individuals reported fewer physical and emotional limitations, more energy, less bodily pain, and better overall general health.

Our take-home point might be that mindfulness allows people to enjoy their lives, despite physical and psychological challenges.

Does having a mindful personality help in dealing with anxiety and depression?

Although we did not look at the direct influence of the mindful personality on anxiety and depressive symptoms, previous research has consistently found a negative relationship between the mindful personality and psychopathological symptoms.

Our research does indicate that individuals who had achieved the mindful personality reported fewer role limitations due to emotional problems as well as better emotional well-being and social functioning.

We have conducted other studies that included measures of depression, anxiety, and mindfulness and have found an inverse association between mindfulness and psychological distress in individuals who have had a brain injury, cancer diagnosis, autoimmune disorder, and disordered eating.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on mindful personality go in the future?

We continue to be interested in examining the effects of the mindful personality across various health conditions. We are examining the associations between personality, mindfulness, and psychological flexibility. We are currently developing a program for cancer survivors that focuses on teaching survivors how to improve their overall levels of mindfulness and psychological flexibility to help them cope with ongoing physical symptoms and psychological distress.