Is Your Personality Congruent?

There are three levels of personality, and congruence contributes to happiness.

Posted Jun 21, 2020

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission

I recently finished reading the book, The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I loved it and highly recommend it. I used his analogy of the logical brain as a rider on the elephant (one’s drives and emotional brain) in my previous post, “How to Control Your Mind.” In this post, I address another interesting topic he raised, the three levels of personality and the need for congruence. 

Haidt focuses on the work of Dan McAdams who suggests there are three levels of personality, but psychology has largely focused on the basic traits, which are the lowest level (p.142). What psychology has deemed as the best descriptor of personality (the Big 5: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) are our typical reactions to situations, in which genetics play the biggest role (p.142). This is the lowest level of personality. 

As I wrote in my post, “The Many Faces of You,” the environment has been found to have a major influence over personality. I will spare the reader a reiteration of all of the evidence, but if in doubt you can read the aforementioned post, or “You Aren’t You at All.” The theory is that your basic personality (largely genetic and conditioned, and described by the “Big 5” above) is affected by the environment. As one’s environment and roles remain consistent so does one’s personality. But when things change, the person has to rely on new ways to cope. 

Dr. Haidt identifies the second level of personality as “characteristic adaptations.” This includes “goals, defense and coping mechanisms, values, beliefs, and life stage concerns” (p. 142). Haidt refers to this as a middle stage, which is heavily influenced by a person’s basic traits. For example, a person high in extroversion will utilize outside support when there are drastic changes in his environment (p.142). 

The third level of personality is the story that one is weaving from the past, present, and perception of her future. As the basic traits derive from the elephant, the story comes from the rider (the logical mind). Haidt makes the case that from an evolutionary perspective, brains are focused on success, not happiness. Though many believe that success brings happiness, this generally accepted idea has not held up when researched. Whenever one accomplishes a goal, the happiness derived is short-lived, and a new goal is set. This leads to striving to accomplish a new goal, and “happiness” being delayed until that new goal is accomplished. My students often report believing happiness will be delivered once they graduate and have a career. Those in careers know that the career itself brings additional goals where once achieved, one believes he may be happy. For many, this is repeated throughout life, short spurts of happiness until the goal of retirement will finally bring happiness (which, again, often is not the case as I wrote in “Mindful Aging”). The above story focuses on achieving. As a result, there is little sustained happiness. For more on how success (or, one of the best gauges of it in our culture, money) does not lead to happiness, I recommend The Happiness Lab episode, “The Unhappy Millionaire,” which can be found in the references. 

When a crisis strikes, however, one might change their goals. Many faced with crisis vow to work less, spend more time with family and friends, and generally re-evaluate their goals and life. As I wrote in, “The Existential Crisis You Are (Or Should Be) Having,” this is an excellent time to reevaluate how one wishes to spend her life. In essence, one might change the story. Changing one’s story can have a major impact on one’s personality. Personality can be changed, tweaked, and brought more into alignment with how one wants to be. This takes commitment, practice, and mindfulness

An aspect that Dr. Haidt tackles in his book is the importance of congruence between the three levels of personality. When someone’s basic traits align with their environment and they can create a cohesive and positive story, they are likely to have more mental health. This brings me back to my last post, where people often want to behave in one way, yet their emotions and drives lead them in a different way. Their story is not coherent, and therefore they have less happiness. Additionally, as Haidt points out, when someone’s story doesn’t align with what they do, there is no congruence. He provides the example of a person's story being an artist but instead, the person listens to her parents and takes a more practical job (p.145). He posits it will take adversity to make the changes necessary to align the three aspects of her personality. Dr. Haidt builds a case that adversity is a component of happiness, as it can lead to aligning the levels of personality and additionally creates a more enjoyable story. 

As I have previously written, it needn’t take a tragedy to look within and create your own existential crisis. The human brain is not built for happiness (see, “You Aren’t Built to Be Happy”). Instead, it is built for survival and, as part of survival, for success. Success doesn’t bring long-term happiness (though, in reality, happiness cannot be sustained indefinitely). Understanding the levels of personality, the importance of environment and mindfulness that leads to creating oneself, can lead to creating more congruence and better mental health. Dr. Haidt’s book offers much more education about the mind that can lead to a happier existence. I highly recommend reading it. 

Copyright William Berry, 2020


Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books, New York, N.Y.

Santos, L. (Host). 2019, Sep. 24. The Happiness Lab, The Unhappy Millionaire [Audio Podcast Episode]. In The Happiness Lab.