Think of the happiest person you know, and describe him or her. Perhaps the person that comes to mind is someone sociable – or at least seems to have many friendships or meaningful relationships. Perhaps you know of someone who has a fulfilling job or career – one that gives them a great sense of purpose and sense of accomplishment. You might even think up someone who appears generally calm, stable – unperturbed, able to weather the ups and downs of life without breaking a sweat. Psychologists researching individual differences – how and why people are different, have shown that we have some generally stable personality factors that influence how happy we tend to be. The term psychologists use to describe happiness is subjective well-being (SWB).
Our personality shapes how we generally think, behave, and of course, feel. These stable differences are sometimes referred to as traits – the ‘default’ manner in which we function. The most established approach to understanding personality traits is through the Big Five Model (sometimes referred to as the five-factor model, FFM). According to this model, individuals differ in terms of the five general qualities: (1) extraversion – the extent to which an individual draws energy and positive emotions from social attention and interactions, (2) openness – how much an individual is receptive of new or novel experiences; (3) conscientiousness – the degree to which an individual is directed, orderly and driven; (4) agreeableness – the tendency for individuals to value social harmony in their relationships with others and (5) neuroticism – how sensitive or reactive the individual is towards unpleasant emotions.
If we combined study after study about which all the above personality traits, which do you think are likely to lead to happiness? One study did precisely this – combining of 137 traits and sampling more than 40,000 respondents. Results showed that extraversion was positively associated with happiness – individuals who engaged in more in meaningful social interactions, and are able to draw positive energy from these interactions, overall report higher levels of SWB. The same study also showed that there was a negative association between neuroticism and SWB. That is, individuals who are more receptive and sensitive to unpleasant emotions tend to report being less happy overall . This may be because neuroticism is frequently associated with less-than-helpful coping approaches such as rumination. Individuals who are more prone to these unpleasant emotions are also more reactive towards the stresses of everyday life . Finally, in addition to personality factors, this study also showed that trust, hardiness, and having good levels of self-esteem are also positively associated with SWB.
Does personality also influence how happy we tend to be at work? In another study, both extraversion and neuroticism show up again as important personality traits influencing how satisfied we tend to be with our jobs. This study, assessing more than 163 different samples (ranging from 5 to 2000 respondents), also showed conscientiousness to be positively related with job satisfaction. This may be because conscientious individuals tend to be more involved in their work, and adopt more directed, focused approaches towards meeting work goals and tasks. Conscientiousness also appears related to at least two key component of a fulfilling life – engagement, and achievement in meaningful work.
The research does seems just that bit easier for you to achieve happiness if you were high on extroversion and conscientiousness, and low on neuroticism. That said, personality is not destiny – but these are certainly traits you might want to reflect on a bit more in understanding how they shape your overall happiness.