Study shows personality traits point the pathway to happiness

Media release
06 July 2020

A new study has revealed why personality is a major predictor of human happiness by identifying the character traits most likely to lead to personal wellbeing.

This new Deakin University research – recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin – provides the most comprehensive map of the links between personality traits and wellbeing ever compiled, synthesising data from more than 330,000 people in more than 400 different international studies.

Lead researcher Dr Jeromy Anglim, a senior lecturer in Deakin's School of Psychology, found 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," Dr Anglim said.

"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."

Dr Anglim's research is the first to evaluate personality's effect on traditional wellbeing indicators – regularity of positive and negative emotions, overall life satisfaction – in combination with newer indicators labelled 'psychological wellbeing', which look at things like growth, autonomy, positive relations and purpose.

"So, this is not just about asking if you're happy, but if you also have these important pathways that facilitate a happy life," Dr Anglim said.

"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."

Dr Anglim said many of the personality traits widely considered positive – for example warmth and self-discipline – did reflect on greater psychological wellbeing, but there were some surprises.

"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 well-being."

Dr Anglim said it was useful to understand 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."

But for those worried about being more neurotic than extraverted, or who feel they could use a little more conscientiousness, Dr Anglim said 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 well-being."

"Equally, the humanistic perspective of well-being 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."

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