Born happy? The link between happiness, personality and genes

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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Image: PixelPet

By Michele Connolly

Choose to be happier – and you will be.


  1. It makes no sense to me to tell people to make people to make peace with their personality and also to pretend to be extraverted even when you’re not. How can happiness depend on a false front, and forcing yourself to act like something you’re not? And where is the personal integrity in that? Eventually if relationships progress to intimacy, the truth comes out about who you are — and then people are disappointed and feel tricked.

    I’d also be interested to hear what you think about the differences in the way men and women are treated for introvert behavior. I think being both female and introverted is one of the hardest combinations possible in our culture. But to act like a typical extraverted female would take enormous psychological energy, at least for me.

  2. Hi Lainie,

    That’s such a good question – how can you make peace with your personality and yet ‘pretend’ to be something you’re not?

    The ‘making peace with your personality’ part is about knowing yourself and recognizing the parts of you that make happiness easier or harder. The ‘acting’ part is about choosing to behave in ways that may not be your first instinct, but which help you to be happier.

    For instance, once I realized that I was quite high on neuroticism, I stopped seeing my worries as necessarily ‘real’. Even though it felt ‘natural’ to me to ruminate endlessly, I saw that other people with different personalities in the same situation wouldn’t worry so much. It’s not that I now ‘pretend’ not to worry, but instead I might distract myself with other things or ask a non-worrying friend how they’d view the situation. (I’m not always successful, believe me, but it’s better than always giving in to the ‘natural’ worrier! And it does get a little easier over time.)

    Similarly with introversion. Making peace with that aspect of my personality has helped me make ‘happier’ choices – like going out less, choosing my social occasions carefully, but also making more of an effort to talk to people when I do choose to be social.

    I guess it’s a bit like deciding to eat well. Not everyone’s lucky enough to love fruit and vegetables. But if you make peace with your love of crunchy foods then it makes it easier to make healthful choices – like, apples, celery and crunchy salads, rather than boiled vegetables or pureed fruit. Not a great analogy, but I guess my point is that if you only do the things that come naturally or habitually it might not serve you in the long run. But by knowing what’s natural – making peace with your personality – you can make better – more informed – choices for yourself.

    Re the second part of your comment, I don’t see why you should try to act like a ‘typical extraverted female’ – you sound like a wonderful thinking, feeling person just as you are! The idea coming from the research is simply that you can boost your happiness by moving toward the extraverted side of your OWN personality. Not pretending, just edging beyond habit and comfort and seeing how you feel when you do – you might surprise yourself. You’re the boss, remember, and the whole point is to BE HAPPIER, so view your actions and choices as a toolbox to play with.

    Lastly, as an introverted female you can feel invisible at times – I certainly do. But I imagine it’s also hard to be an introverted male, especially as men are often expected to be aggressive and take-charge.

    Thanks so much for taking the trouble to comment on this post, Lanie. (You might also be interested in the linked posts which have more detail.) I’d really welcome your thoughts on this reply.

    Warm wishes,
    Michele 🙂

  3. I think the very definition of introversion is that you are drained, not energized, by constant social activity. Go back and read the well-circulated article in The Atlantic from several years ago if that is not clear to you; it’s the best description I’ve ever seen of what it means to be an introvert. I think making introversion the problem is really wrong. In fact, I think your whole definition of happiness seems to be acting extraverted, so it’s a stacked deck from the start. Introversion is not a bad habit like choosing junk food over salads, and it feels condescending for you to treat it that way. And equating a preference for more solitude with depression is completely wrong, and exactly the kind of misunderstanding that makes everyone think antidepressants are the answer to the “problem” of an introverted personality. Sorry — I think your collection of cherry-picked solutions is too glib on this one.

  4. Hi again Lainie,

    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment further. Here are a few points of clarification that may also interest other readers:

    1. The concepts of EXTRAVERSION/INTROVERSION and neuroticism that I use are based on the ‘Big-Five’ dimensions generally accepted by psychologists who study subjective wellbeing. See:

    (Incidentally, the ‘constant social activity’ you mention sounds AWFUL to me. As I said, I don’t go out very often and I pick my social occasions carefully. I suspect most introverts do.)

    2. The concept of HAPPINESS I use is drawn from the psych literature. See my post:

    As you’ll see, it’s pretty comprehensive and based entirely on research findings. All the references are cited at the bottom of the post.

    3. The LINK BETWEEN LOW EXTRAVERSION/HIGH NEUROTICISM AND HAPPINESS is not my opinion – it’s a robust research finding. Every time I mention the personality-happiness connection I provide the study references. You might like to check them out for the nitty gritty details. It’s all there.

    For PERSONALITY-HAPPINESS RESEARCH FINDINGS see the references cited for posts under the Personality category:

    For RESEARCH METHODOLOGY see ‘If you’re wondering how happiness is studied…’ under:

    4. The finding that INTROVERTS WHO ACT EXTRAVERTED ARE HAPPIER than those who don’t isn’t my opinion, it’s a research finding. For details check out the references for my post:

    5. This site doesn’t judge that people SHOULD be happier. It’s a SITE FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE HAPPIER – so it offers suggestions, based on research, philosophy or sometimes humor, for how people might change their thinking and actions. I distill the information so my readers can find a range of information in one place and use what they like.

    6. I don’t suggest ANTI-DEPRESSANTS are the answer. See especially my posts:

    Ciao for now,

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