Born happy? The link between happiness, personality and genes

17 03 2008

image A new British study has shed more light on the genes/personality contribution to happiness. Genes may contribute up to 50% of the variance in happiness, and the new research suggests this genetic influence on happiness is essentially conveyed via personality.

Researchers using a representative sample of 973 twin pairs found that the heritable differences in happiness were pretty well explained by the differences in personality, particularly the dimensions of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness.

What does that mean for people who’d like to be a bit cheerier but may not have inherited the ideal personality? Co-researcher Tim Bates from University of Edinburgh said in an article on the study:

‘If people want to raise their own levels of well-being, our best advice is that they practice the kinds of behaviors that characterize calm, conscientious, extroverts…Try and be active and social, even if with just a few people. Practice the things you find emotionally challenging, maybe even keeping a diary to help you keep a sense of reality, and allow you to reflect on which strategies work, and which do not.’

Uh – does this all sound familiar? That’s because we’ve covered a lot of this ground in 101 Happiness Strategies.

To recap:

How to be happy – 11. Focus on what you can do to be happier

Genes – via personality – contribute at most 50% of happiness variance. That leaves a lot of wriggle room around the genetic stuff for boosting happiness.

How to be happy – 12. Make peace with your personality

Much of the personality influence works via the way people act - which is why Bates suggests we ‘practice the kinds of behaviors that characterize calm, conscientious, extroverts’. What you do affects how you feel.

How to be happy – 13. Act like you’re an extravert – even if you aren’t

Introverts who behave like extraverts are happier than those who don’t. Again, personality might be the premise, but it’s not the whole story. You drive the narrative.

How to be happy – 14. Concentrate on intentional factors

When you take into account that genes/personality might contribute 50% and external conditions another 10% to happiness, you’re left with a solid 40% up for grabs. That’s too much happiness potential to leave on the table while complaining about your personality shortcomings.

Happiness Life Strategy: Know your personality

Knowing your personality traits can help you make choices for happiness. For every personality profile there’s a situation that brings out the best – and the worst – in a person.

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Happiness Life Strategy: Know your personality

29 02 2008

imageNo matter what your personality make-up, you can make choices that bring you greater happiness. You just have to understand the pros and cons of your personality traits.

In Happiness Strategy 12: Make peace with your personality we learned the ‘Big-Five’ dimensions of personality are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism and we saw that extraversion and neuroticism are particularly related to happiness.

According to Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University in the UK, regardless of your personality composition there’s an ideal environment for you (New Scientist 9 February 2008).

Nettle notes that for each personality dimension there’s both an upside and downside.

  • In his own study extraverts had more sexual partners and enjoyed greater career and economic success (they’re also more likely to be ‘born happy’ as well as act in ways that promote happiness). On the other hand extraverts suffered more injury- and accident-related hospitalization and greater family instability, including divorce.
  • Agreeable people attract and keep friends and enjoy plenty of social support. The cost, however, is often their own priorities, which they sacrifice for the sake of others.
  • Conscientiousness can help a person gets things done but it can also close their eyes to opportunities that distractible people notice and exploit.
  • Openness can serve people well in historical/cultural contexts that value artistic qualities but not in times where more practical qualities are needed.
  • Neuroticism (which is related to unhappiness) can be an asset in times of genuine threat.

Nettle’s point is that knowing your personality puts you in touch with its pros and cons. And that helps you make better choices for happiness.

Happiness life strategy

It’s no secret to Happiness Strategies readers that I score high on both introversion and neuroticism. Realizing I had these predispositions gave me two of my most reliable and effective happiness strategies.

1. Recognizing my introverted tendencies led me to re-structure my life to have more alone time. I changed my work situation so I can work from home and I stopped going out so much. I now feel drained much less and enjoy my social time much more. I look forward to being with people!

2. Facing my inner neurotic helped me pay less attention to my worries – I realized they weren’t necessarily ‘real’. It also helped me accept and enjoy my pleasure in order and tidiness – it was simply a quirk, so I could enjoy it instead of trying to deconstruct or change it.

Want to know yourself a little better? You could do an online personality test or read more about the Big Five dimensions. But you probably already have a good sense of your personality, and can gain more insight simply by tuning in.

By becoming more aware of your predispositions you too can work with them for greater happiness. For instance:

  • Agreeableness
    If you feel resentful that your preferences often get pushed aside, realize your part in this. You could choose to raise your own priorities a smidge and lower your need to be loved by everyone all the time.
  • Conscientiousness
    If you’re not so good at being organized and getting things done, office manager may not be the career for you. Look for opportunities that reward flexibility and don’t require routine – perhaps sales or creative work.
  • Openness
    If you feel constrained by your friends you may benefit from looking for new people in your life. Instead of doing the things you find stifling, explore courses, classes or groups with interests that stimulate you. You might find a whole new dimension to yourself!

As Nettle says,

If your personality causes you grief, why not try changing the niche you occupy in this complex system that is modern life?

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How to be happy – 14. Concentrate on intentional factors

8 02 2008

image Lesson: A happiness model

Although positive psychology and well-being research have flourished, there’s no  agreed-upon theory of happiness. But a model has been suggested, quite recently in fact, and it’s based on 3 factors (1).

1. Circumstances and demographics
- like health, finances and marital status

2. Personality and genes 
- the ‘innate’ aspects of a person

3. Intentional factors 
- deliberate actions like pursuing a goal

These 3 factors vary in how much, and for how long, they can change a person’s level of happiness. The first 2 will probably sound familiar by now:

1. Circumstances and demographics

Overall circumstances at a given time make a pretty small contribution to happiness – as we saw in Happiness Strategy 8: Make happiness an inside job and Happiness Strategy 10: Don’t keep up with the Joneses.

And changing these circumstances leads at best to a short-term boost, because people quickly adjust to new conditions, as we saw in Happiness Strategy 9: Get off the hedonic treadmill.

According to the model, circumstances and demographics contribute about 10% of the variance in happiness, in statistical terms.

2. Personality and genes 

Unlike the small effect of conditions, genes and personality make a big difference to happiness levels, as we saw in Happiness Strategy 11: Focus on what you can do to be happier and Happiness Strategy 12: Make peace with your personality. It may be that people have a happiness set-point around which they fluctuate with circumstances.

According to the model personality and genes contribute about 50% of the variance in happiness.

Our conscious behavior can explain some of the happiness-personality link, as we saw in Strategy 13: Act like you’re an extravert – even if you aren’t.

Which leads nicely to the third part of the model.

3. Intentional factors 

We’re left with about 40% for the last factor in the happiness model – the actions or behaviors people engage in deliberately. They might be:

  • Cognitive – like counting your blessings
  • Behavioral – like exercising regularly
  • Volitional – like striving for a goal.

Although intentional factors aren’t automatic, they can become a habit over time (1).

Happiness strategy: Concentrate on intentional factors

Looking at the factors in this model of happiness, it’s clear where our happiness-raising efforts will have the most benefit. Circumstances contribute little, changed circumstances bring short-term gains at best, and genes offer limited opportunity for tweaking. Rather, it’s the intentional component of the model that makes a large contribution to happiness as well as offering a way to sustainable happiness change.

  • What kinds of intentional actions can we use to raise our happiness levels?
  • Is there research evidence that they work?
  • And if they work, will we stay happier for life, or will we have to keep doing them?

Upcoming strategies will cover these and many other questions about intentional factors as a way to raise your own happiness. Stay tuned!

Research sources:

(1) Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

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How to be happy – 13. Act like you’re an extravert – even if you aren’t

1 02 2008

image Lesson: We can learn from happy extraverts and happy introverts

We saw in Strategy 12 that introverted people tend to be less happy than their extraverted counterparts.

But before you anti-social butterflies throw up your wings in despair and head for the nearest net, let me share some nuggets of evidence that the extraversion-happiness link is less clear-cut than it looks.

1. Even the strong correlations between extraversion and happiness (up to .61 for the statistically minded; 1) allow for rather a lot of happy introverts. Most of us can think of someone who’s not naturally outgoing, but who’s happy. If extraversion isn’t inevitably related to happiness, something else must be at work, at least for the happy introverts.

2. Happy introverts act a lot like like happy extraverts – at work, leisure and even when engaged in solitary activities (1). So although  happy introverts and happy extraverts score differently on personality traits, they behave in similar ways.

3. Simply acting extraverted leads to feeling happier. This applies whether you’re deliberately making an effort to be social, optimistic and active (some of the qualities of extraversion) or you do it naturally in the situation (2).

The fact that there are unhappy extraverts and happy introverts means it can’t be extraversion per se that makes people happy. Rather, the findings above suggest that both extraverts and introverts are happy when they do extraverted things. Perhaps acting social, optimistic and active comes naturally to extraverts – but the good news for the rest of us is that even when introverts act that way, their happiness increases too.

Happiness strategy: Act like you’re an extravert – even if you aren’t

Wherever you sit on the introversion-extraversion dimension, you can be happier. You needn’t go from party pooper to party popper overnight, but you can take small actions that feel good to you. For instance:

  • Start one conversation each day
    It can be with a person at the store, the library, the gym, the coffee machine – anywhere you see people. Keep it simple and light – no medical stories or rants about today’s youth. Starting up conversations is a great way to build your social muscle – and soon you’ll find it’s less of an effort and more of a habit.
  • Initiate social dates
    Not everyone is the life of the party but we do all benefit from having a network of people in our lives – even a small one. Be prepared to initiate some social activities yourself. Start with something simple like inviting a friend out for coffee or suggesting a movie to see with a small group you already know.
  • Plan activities for yourself
    You might feel disinclined to plan activities but having a schedule is a good way to become more proactive. Boosting your energy level and opting for a little extra adventure can be goals you pursue at a pace that feels challenging, but good. 

The idea with this strategy is not to push yourself to be something you’re not. Rather, simply aim for the more extraverted end of your own spectrum – and you might just find yourself at the happier end, too.

A note on neuroticism
Neuroticism hasn’t attracted as much research attention as extraversion, so we don’t have parallel findings about people acting emotionally stable (neuroticism’s opposite pole). As happiness research continues to thrive, such research may emerge.

Research sources:

(1) Hills, P., & Argyle, M. (2001). Happiness, introversion-extraversion and happy introverts. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(4), 595-608.

(2) Fleeson, W., Malanos, A. B., & Achille, N. M. (2002). An intraindividual process approach to the relationship between extraversion and positive affect: Is acting extraverted as ‘good’ as being extraverted? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1409-1422.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

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Image: (eLi) under the terms of a creative commons license




How to be happy – 12. Make peace with your personality

24 01 2008

image Lesson: Not all personalities are created equally happy

In Strategy 11 we saw there’s evidence that genes link to happiness via personality – which has a moderate-to-strong genetic component, emerges early, and stays stable-ish through life.

Psychologists believe personality can, to some extent, be reflected by 5 traits: agreeableness, opennessconscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism. These ‘Big-Five’  are dimensions, not types, so all 5 appear in everyone to some extent. And they don’t sum up a person – they’re simply helpful descriptive tools.

Of special relevance to happiness are neuroticism, a tendency to be anxious, moody and easily upset, and extraversion, an inclination toward sociability, optimism and activity. Quite a lot of research suggests there’s a personality-happiness link: that happiness relates positively to extraversion and negatively to neuroticism. (1; 2; 3).

This link – and the finding that personality doesn’t change much over your life – has led some psychologists in the past to say  happiness is genetically set (4). But these days psychologists see heredity as indirect – you can thwart unwanted aspects of personality by deliberate action (5) – such as avoiding triggering situations or consciously choosing to do things that may not come naturally.

Recent research supports the idea of a more indirect happiness-personality link:

  • Personality is only one influence on happiness (4). Other factors play a part – and may even counteract personality effects – in a person’s happiness level.
  • The happiness-personality link fades when you include happiness-generating behaviors (6).  (There’ll be much more on these in upcoming strategies). That is, happiness has a lot to do with a person’s actions.
  • For instance, extraverts feel happier because they make more effort to manage their moods (7).

Happiness strategy: Make peace with your personality

If you’re inclined toward sociability, optimism and activity, celebrate your extraversion! If you’re naturally resistant to upsets, worry and bad moods, enjoy your freedom from neuroticism! And if you’re both extraverted and emotionally stable (the opposite pole of neuroticism) then congratulations – you have a happy personality (8)!

If, however, you recognize in yourself a more introverted temperament, or a leaning toward the neurotic, then you might like to notice the things you do that don’t serve your happiness, and choose different behaviors that may not come so naturally. For instance:

  • Recognize your perspective may be skewed
    If you lean toward the neurotic, you might think in ways that promote worry, moodiness and upset. Don’t beat yourself up about it – but do recognize that the way you see things may not be constructive. Instead of giving worries and bad moods too much attention, consider seeing them as quirks of personality – and you may find they lose some of their bite.
  • Find alternatives to ruminating
    Ruminating is an ineffective way of dealing with worry. If you catch yourself doing it, consciously switch to a more proactive strategy, like writing in a journal, talking with a friend, or brainstorming possible actions to take – anything that stops you endlessly re-hashing go-nowhere thoughts.
  • Develop a repertoire of bad-mood busters
    Feeling bad can set you on a downward spiral of negative thinking. Instead, stage a mood intervention and do something to make yourself feel better – just like you might do for a friend. Activities that get you out of your head can be a welcome distraction – like books, movies, DVDs, (keep them light and fun), shopping, gardening, playing sport or games, or spending time with friends. 

These suggestions can help you develop a more emotionally stable approach to upsets. There’s also much to be gained from boosting your extraversion level – as we’ll see in the next strategy.

Research sources:

(1) Cheng, H., & Furnham, A. (2003). Personality, self-esteem, and demographic predictions of happiness and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(6), 921-942.

(2) Hayes, N., & Joseph, S. (2003). Big 5 correlates of three measures of subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(4), 723-727.

(3) Headey, B., & Wearing, A. J. (1992). Understanding happiness: A theory of subjective well-being. South Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

(4) Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.

(5) Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others?: The role of cognitive and motivational processes in well-being. American Psychologist, 56(3), 239-249.

(6) Tkach, C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How do people pursue happiness?: Relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(2), 183-225.

(7) Lischetzke, T., & Eid, M. (2006). Why extraverts are happier than introverts: The role of mood regulation. Journal of Personality, 74(4), 1127-1162.

(8) Francis, L. J., Brown, L. B., Lester, D., & Philipchalk, R. (1998). Happiness as stable extraversion: A cross-cultural examination of the reliability and validity of the Oxford Happiness Inventory among students in the U.K., U.S.A., Australia, and Canada. Personality and Individual Differences, 24(2), 167-171.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

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Image: dokuro hana under the terms of a creative commons license