Many of the questions in personality research are geared towards figuring out which came first, the chicken or the egg. For example, do your personality traits determine what happens to you, or do the events and conditions in your life change your personality?
While researchers know a connection exists between personality and happiness, they couldn’t always explain why. We already have the scientific research to show that your personality traits can influence your sense of well-being and contentment (for example, extraverts and conscientious people tend to be happier, while those who are high in neuroticism tend to be miserable), but researchers in a recent study wanted to flip the question around. Could being happy change your personality? How would this work? What impact would it have, and why?
To look at the specific connections between personality and happiness, specifically how our sense of well-being can influence our personality, researchers evaluated 16,367 Australian participants in three core areas of well-being—life satisfaction, positive emotions and negative emotions. They also conducted personality analyses using the Big Five Model. Their hypothesis was that “personality traits and well-being aspects reciprocally influence each other over time.”1 In other words, happiness and the personality traits that go along with it may create a sort of positive feedback loop, creating lasting changes in the personalities of people who experience a positive sense of well-being.
What Is Well-Being?
What do the researchers mean when they refer to well-being? In this case, the goal was to measure general emotional states over time. While our levels of happiness and positivity may vary somewhat by circumstance, we all have a more or less fixed point for general emotional state. To determine levels of well-being in the study, researchers looked at specifics, such as how happy a subject had been and how he or she perceived his or her financial state, as well as broad generalizations about quality of life in general.
According to the researchers, “People with different personality traits tend to experience different degrees of subjective well-being. Specifically, in terms of the Big Five trait dimensions—Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism (vs. Emotional Stability), and Openness to Experience—individuals who are more extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable tend to experience greater satisfaction with life, more frequent positive affect, and less frequent negative affect.”3
When it comes to personality traits and their influence on well-being, neuroticism is a big influencer and predictor of this, having a greater and more predictable impact on well-being than any of the other traits (but being followed closely by extraversion). High neuroticism is more likely to equate with a negative sense of well-being, while low neuroticism (aka high emotional stability) and extraversion are more likely to indicate a positive sense. While these two traits have been researched extensively, the present research showed that high levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness are also connected to a strong sense of personal well-being.
Does Your Personality Influence Your Well-being?
The research confirmed what previous studies have found: Our personality traits directly influence our subjective levels of well-being—and we can see why. Possessing traits that are valued by society usually means that life will generally go well for you, and even if it doesn’t, you at least tend to see it more positively. Good continues to perpetuate good and you experience and perceive more and more success in all realms of life. On the flip side, neuroticism perpetuates the negative.
Does Well-being Influence Your Personality Traits?
The results of the study showed that individuals with high levels of well-being actually became more agreeable, conscientious and emotionally stable over time.
While it was previously believed that personality traits are more or less fixed throughout the life cycle, research is now suggesting that personality can actually change. Sure, our brains are definitely more plastic in our younger years, but as we age and confront a life’s worth of circumstances and events, our personalities evolve as well. The results of the study showed that one of the factors contributing to this evolution is our personal sense of well-being.
The researchers give an explanation for how this could be possible:
“There are also plausible reasons to suspect that sustained high or low levels of subjective well-being might influence people’s personality traits. For example, suppose that an individual leads a life that consistently generates high levels of life satisfaction and positive affect. Being in a good mood typically leads to sociable, generous, and exploratory behavior. Over time, a consistent pattern of such behavior may become integrated into the individual’s self-concept and other psychological systems, thereby leading to enduring increases in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Openness to Experience. Conversely, life circumstances that consistently produce negative emotions may lead an individual to internalize this unpleasant affect, as well as the pattern of socially withdrawn, self-focused, and cautious behavior that often accompanies negative moods. In terms of personality traits, this would manifest as an increase in Neuroticism, as well as decreases in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Openness.”4
What Does This Mean for Us?
What the researchers wanted to show was that although it was already known that there was a connection between personality traits and well-being, which influenced which wasn’t as clear as people thought. In the end, the study showed that, not only does well-being have the potential to influence personality, but that it actually holds a stronger influence than personality has on well-being.
This provides hopeful news for people wanting to change their personalities. The assumption is that altering one’s personality traits will lead to well-being, but in fact, it’s largely the reverse. Taking intentional steps to increase one’s personal well-being may produce a positive impact on personality, which in turn further increases well-being.
Why does it matter? Well, according to the researchers:
“Personality traits and subjective well-being are tremendously important personal characteristics, and so even small changes to them can be meaningful. Subjective well-being, by its very definition, represents a fundamental component of human experience: whether a person experiences his or her life as basically satisfying or dissatisfying, pleasant or unpleasant. Moreover, both personality traits and well-being aspects have been shown to predict a host of other outcomes, from physical health and longevity to relationship quality and stability to occupational choice and performance to mental health and psychopathology. Therefore, even small changes to an individual’s personality traits or subjective well-being can have important consequences for the course of his or her life.”5
The Effect of Well-being on Extraversion
One of the more interesting findings of the study was the connection between well-being and extraversion. Those who reported an increase in well-being also tended to experience a decrease in extraversion—they became more introverted. This result was unexpected since extraversion and high levels of happiness and well-being are so commonly linked. Why are happier people becoming more introverted then?
The researchers speculated that those who are living happy, stable lives might feel less inclined to be socially active, focusing instead on strengthening and maintaining current relationships rather than making a lot of new ones. High levels of well-being are often tied to healthy relationships with others, but also to a strong sense of self and a healthy relationship with the self. When you achieve this, you still really enjoy people and being social, but there is a good amount of comfort and enjoyment in solitude, and you may even begin to derive positive energy from being alone.
In conclusion, while past studies have shown how personality impacts well-being, this new research challenges the one-way model, suggesting that personal well-being has a significant and reliable influence on one’s personality over time. So, get happy!