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, openness, conscientiousness, 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.
(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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