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Is It Really Possible to Be Too Nice?

New research suggests why the nicest people aren’t necessarily the happiest.

Key points

  • People who are nice and agreeable are generally well-liked and valued in their communities.
  • Being highly agreeable is sometimes linked to lower life satisfaction, new research suggests.
  • Excessive niceness may render people vulnerable to exploitation, in which case others may lose respect for them.
Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock
Source: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock

You are undoubtedly familiar with the expression that “nice guys (i.e. people) finish last,” but have you ever given it much thought? Why would nice people be less likely to do what it takes to win? Perhaps you have a friend who never seems to mind if other people are rude or dismissive. Even when you’re in a bad mood, this person takes no offense when you vent your anger and frustration. Like a comfy warm pillow, you can always count on your friend to make you feel better.

Why Would Nice People Finish Last?

It would seem like nice people would actually have an edge over nasty people in the social hierarchy. Others want to be around them because they radiate positive energy. Why, then, would they “finish last,” and is there any truth to this cliché?

According to Umeå University’s Filip Fors Connolly and Ingemar Johansson Sevä (2021), there are solid theoretical reasons for the lack of advancement shown by people who are too nice. Corresponding to the Five Factor personality trait of agreeableness, the quality of niceness is one that can stymie an individual’s potential to rise to the top. Other people may like the chronically agreeable, but they don’t necessarily choose them to be leaders.

Thinking about your friend, is this someone you could see as representing anything more than as someone to cozy up to when you’re in need of a morale boost? Could you see this person as someone’s boss, a person who gives orders that others must follow?

Connolly and Sevä observe that “One explanation for the weak association between agreeableness and status may be that people high in this trait are more motivated to be liked rather than admired.” The authors go on to explain that “one can respect someone whom one does not like (an accomplished rival), and like someone whom one does not respect (a friendly buffoon).” Your friend may not be a buffoon, but would you ever consider them to be an accomplished rival?

The Relationship Between Agreeableness and Life Satisfaction

The Swedish authors point out that when it comes to life satisfaction, there are two potentially key influences related to an individual’s position in the “local ladder” or social group. People move to the higher rungs of this ladder when they have strength in two basic qualities. As the authors note, “any social encounter or interpersonal relationship can be characterized in terms of the degree to which each individual is perceived as having instrumental social value (status, respect) and relational value (acceptance, liking).”

Referring to instrumental value as “status” and relational value as “inclusion,” the authors sought to test the associations between these qualities and life satisfaction as influenced by personality. Their hypotheses predicted that with lower levels of status, the highly agreeable don’t receive respect and admiration, leaving them deficient in this one key contributor to feelings of well-being. Your friend’s comfy pillow qualities, according to this interpretation, turn them just as easily into the proverbial doormat rather than as someone you’d be afraid to offend.

Testing the Personality-Life Satisfaction Link

Using an online sample of 3,780 adults (ages 18 to 65 and up) living in Australia, Denmark, and Sweden, Connolly and Sevä measured Five Factor personality traits, life satisfaction, status and inclusion with brief questionnaires.

To get an understanding of the instruments measuring status and inclusion, try rating yourself on the following items:

Status (1 to 5 scale):

  1. I have a high level of respect in others’ eyes.
  2. I have high social standing.
  3. Others look up to me.

Inclusion (0 to 6 scale):

  1. I feel close to my family.
  2. There is no one in my family I can depend on for support and encouragement (reversed).
  3. I am able to depend on my friends for help.
  4. I do not have any friends who understand me, but I wish I did (reversed).

Across the samples, the average scores per item were on the high side (approximately 3.5 to 4), but of key interest to the researchers were the predictive values of personality, inclusion, and status on life satisfaction. As a comparison to agreeableness, the authors also included scores on extraversion, a personality trait known to be associated with higher levels of both social ranking measures and, in turn, life satisfaction.

What Are the Costs of Being Nice?

As Connolly and Sevä predicted, participants higher in agreeableness who also were high in the quality of inclusion had higher life satisfaction scores. Status played no role in predicting satisfaction for the highly agreeable. However, setting aside the role of inclusion, people high in agreeableness in general had lower levels of life satisfaction. In contrast, people high in extraversion had higher inclusion and status scores, both of which contributed to their higher life satisfaction.

When interpreting the extraversion vs. agreeableness findings, the authors suggest that "if high levels of life satisfaction depend on being both included and admired, traits that increase both of these needs will have a larger impact compared to traits that only fulfill one of these needs.”

The cost of being agreeable, then, is that your chances of receiving both contributors to social status are reduced, leaving you with fewer resources to contribute to your overall sense of well-being. Nice people as the authors note, “risk being exploited in social situations,” leading them to be less able to fulfill their individual goals.

Are you, then, better off being high in extraversion, the quality that will bring both inclusion and status? Unfortunately, from the perspective of the authors, when you try to gain more status you do so at the cost of someone else's status, making this a zero-sum gain for society as a whole. Instead, being agreeable and showing the “softer” side of extraversion comes at no cost to others. You might recall the expression a “kindler and gentler America” promoted by U.S. President George H.W. Bush. From a psychological standpoint, this study confirms the wisdom of his message.

To sum up, the highly agreeable person is definitely more pleasant to have around as a friend, family member, and companion. If you fall into this category, being aware of the risks of exploitation may be one way to ensure that this kindness doesn’t get in the way of your own feelings of fulfillment.

Facebook image: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock

References

Fors Connolly, F., & Johansson Sevä, I. (2021). Agreeableness, extraversion and life satisfaction: Investigating the mediating roles of social inclusion and status. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. doi: 10.1111/sjop.12755

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