Traits that lead to happiness identified

Personality is a major predictor of human happiness, according to a Deakin University study that identifies the character traits most likely to lead to personal wellbeing.

Recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, the study is the most comprehensive map of the links between personality traits and wellbeing ever compiled, pulling data from more than 330,000 people in more than 400 different international studies.

Researchers analysed facets of self-reported subjective wellbeing, including life satisfaction, positive and negative effect, and psychological wellbeing including positive relations, autonomy, environmental mastery, sense of purpose, self-acceptance, and personal growth.

They found that the personality traits most closely tied to wellbeing are neuroticism, extraversion and conscientiousness.

“Neuroticism is the biggest cause of lower life satisfaction and lower wellbeing. That’s typically people who are stressed, anxious, negative, and ruminate on things,” said lead researcher Dr Jeromy Anglim.

“On the other hand, extraversion and conscientiousness are the strongest drivers of positive wellbeing.

“Extraversion has this positive bubbly emotional side, but it also has a mechanism that drives people into social situations, asserting their interests, seeking out rewards, which all make up a pathway to happiness.

“Conscientiousness is about feeling capable, having a sense of purpose and meaning, and the determination to get there, which can also help you achieve the good life.

“So, this is not just about asking if you’re happy, but if you also have these important pathways that facilitate a happy life.

“What we can see is that depending on your personality traits the way you seek a happy life is different.

“For instance, people who are highly open to experience are more likely to seek out happiness through autonomy and personal growth. In contrast, people high in conscientiousness are better at achieving purpose in life.”

Many of the personality traits widely considered positive such as warmth and self-discipline did reflect on greater psychological wellbeing, but others typically considered positive actually had negative side-effects.

“We found modesty didn’t help people have a great life. It didn’t significantly lower wellbeing, but it didn’t have a positive effect either. This was surprising as most objectively ‘good’ traits show some correlation,” he said.

“It seems an inability or unwillingness to compare oneself favourably to others—whether this be in terms of income, wealth, health, physical attractiveness, or even popularity on social media – may have negative implications for wellbeing.”

The study shows that the way people experienced the world was not simply defined by the nature of the world, but importantly what is inside their heads.

“It’s a foundational question of psychology to better understand how people’s stable characteristics, how they think, feel and approach life, impacts on their satisfaction with life,” he said.

“When people are having a tough time, is it the situation they are in, or is it who they are? Often people point more to the situation; there’s an instinct to do that. But research shows more than half the issue is the person’s outlook.

“That helps us answer questions like, ‘Will money buy you happiness?’ While having more money is modestly related to greater happiness, personality is a much stronger predictor.”

And there’s good news for anyone concerned about being more neurotic than extraverted, or who feel they could use a little more conscientiousness, as Dr Anglim believes it is possible to work on our personality over time.

“It is important to remember that personality traits are not set in stone but malleable, with a wealth of evidence that traits change across the lifespan after specific experiences or interventions, and even according to your goals,” he said.

“For instance, some recent research suggests that when people consciously choose to act extraverted they actually experienced increased wellbeing.

“Equally, the humanistic perspective of wellbeing that emphasises the importance of purpose in life, personal growth, positive relations, and autonomy provides a useful framework for thinking about ways to achieve a deeper form of fulfilment.”

Do you agree with the research? Does your assessment of your wellbeing match the findings?

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