New Paper – Prospective associations between strengths of moral character and health

A new paper published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology explores the role of character, reflected in adherence to high standards of moral behavior, in physical and mental health.  Authors Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska, Matthew T. Lee, Piotr Bialowolski,  Ying Chen, Tyler J. VanderWeele and Eileen McNeely used longitudinal observational data merged with medical insurance claims data collected from 1209 working adults of a large services organization in the US.   Self-reported physical and mental health as well as diagnostic information on depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease were used as outcomes. The prospective associations between SMC (7 indicators and a composite measure) and physical and mental health outcomes were examined using lagged linear and logistic regression models.  The results suggest that persons who live their life according to high moral standards have substantially lower odds of depression (by 21–51%). The results were also indicative of positive associations between SMC and self-reports of mental health (β = 0.048–0.118) and physical health (β = 0.048–0.096).

According to lead author of this study, Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska, research scientist at Harvard SHINE, affiliated scientist at Human Flourishing Program, and Associate Professor of Sociology at the Jagiellonian University, “We know that character strengths are positive personality traits that are essential to one’s identity, contribute to the greater good, and play a favorable role in promoting well-being and positive health. Most of the documented associations between character strengths and health, including physical and mental health, health behaviors, as well as human flourishing, are based on self-reported data. Therefore, they are subject to certain limitations related to, for example, a reporting bias or social desirability bias. By using panel survey data on character strengths, reflecting adherence to high standards of moral behavior, merged with diagnostic information on a broad set of health conditions, derived from the insurance claims data, our study overcomes these caveats at least partially.

Our findings show that persons who live their life according to high moral standards have substantially lower odds of depression (by 21-51%). They also suggest that preferences for delayed gratification may have some potential to be relevant for mitigating risk of anxiety and using strengths of moral character for helping others may be beneficial for one’s physical health (for both self-reports of one’s physical health as well as cardiovascular disease prevention).

Certainly, our study did not use an experimental design that is a gold standard in establishing causal relationships. Therefore, our findings should be interpreted with caution and further research is needed to corroborate the role of strengths of moral character for population mental health and physical health. However, as these positive personality traits are aligned with the nearly universal human desire to become a better person, and are malleable, public health policies promoting them are likely to receive positive reception from the general public.”

Read the full paper.