Understanding the Links Between Personality and Happiness
Personality is a major driver of well-being—here's what we can learn from this.
Posted May 23, 2020
by Luke Smillie and Jeromy Anglim
Scholars have long asserted that well-being is the ultimate end-goal of virtually every human endeavour. If this is even partly true, then identifying the factors that influence well-being is an important mission for psychological science. And one factor that seems to be very important for well-being is personality.
The Links Between Personality and Well-Being
Forty years ago, two traits from the Big Five personality framework were identified as of particular importance for well-being: These were extraversion (the tendency to be bold, assertive, outgoing, talkative, gregarious, and enthusiastic) and neuroticism (the tendency to experience anxiety, irritability, and various other negative emotions). Extraversion predicted higher well-being whereas neuroticism predicted lower wellbeing. Moreover, these traits predicted future wellbeing assessed 10 years later, suggesting that personality has a sustained impact on happiness over time.
Over the next 30 years, dozens and then hundreds of studies were conducted into the links between personality and well-being. Although early studies focused on different sets of traits and measures, making their findings difficult to compare, researchers gradually shifted to the common currency of the Big Five traits. Then, in 2008, researchers published a comprehensive meta-analysis of this literature. Focusing on one of the most widely used measures of the Big Five, they discovered that the links between personality and well-being were even more robust than previously thought. Again, the two strongest predictors of well-being were extraversion (positively) and neuroticism (negatively).
Recently, we saw the need for an updated meta-analysis of the links between personality and well-being. Many more studies had been conducted over the last decade, so it was an open question whether the conclusions of the previous meta-analysis would still hold up. We also wanted to provide a more nuanced understanding of these associations, by widening the focus beyond the Big Five and including a broader set of well-being measures.
Our resultant meta-analysis combined findings from 465 datasets, representing over 300,000 individual participants. To this, we added four new datasets comprising nearly 4,000 participants. This was arguably the most thorough examination of the links between personality and well-being ever conducted.
The results of our meta-analysis suggested that the links between personality and well-being are robust and reproducible. Indeed, our estimates of the associations between personality and well-being were almost perfectly correlated with those obtained in 2008 (r = .99!). Once again, Big Five extraversion and neuroticism emerged as the strongest predictors of well-being. Amid the gloom and uncertainty of psychology’s replication crisis, it was startling to behold such rock-solid findings.
We also made some new discoveries: First, when one considers a broader set of well-being measures, all of the Big Five traits have strong links with at least one aspect of well-being. For example, although openness to experience (the tendency to be curious, creative, intellectual, and artistic) was the weakest Big Five predictor of well-being overall, it was the strongest predictor of a specific aspect of well-being concerned with personal growth (i.e., experiencing one’s life as filled with opportunities for learning and self-development).
Second, our findings were very similar across a range of questionnaires used to assess the Big Five, and a six-factor alternative to the Big Five known as the HEXACO model was also comparable in its predictive power. Thus, the links between personality and well-being appear to generalize across different measurement traditions within the field—they are not a quirk of any one framework or measure.
Perhaps most impressive was the strength with which personality predicted well-being. The meta-analytic correlations we obtained between the Big Five traits and well-being—averaging across nine prominent subjective and psychological well-being assessments—ranged from r = .19 to r = .46. Our four new data-sets yielded near-identical estimates, with correlations ranging from around r = .20 to r = .50. These associations were mostly well above the average correlation in personality research, which equates to an r of ~.20. They were also larger than the meta-analytically derived effects of other notable predictors of well-being, such as income inequality (rs < .16), social support (rs < .21), and physical health (rs < .42). In short, personality traits are not just reliable predictors of well-being, they are also among the strongest predictors of well-being that we know of.
Making Sense of These Findings
Mapping the links between personality and well-being has, in some ways, been the easy problem. The harder problem concerns exactly how we should think about these findings. What should we conclude from the knowledge that the subjective quality of our lives depends to a significant degree on our personalities?
First of all, can we be sure that personality traits causally influence well-being? Perhaps the reverse is true, or perhaps personality and well-being are correlated outcomes of some other factor, traceable to our early life experiences or our genetic make-up. These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and it would be challenging to rule any of them out. Nevertheless, many findings seem in line with the idea that our personalities do influence our happiness levels. For instance, longitudinal studies show that personality traits predict well-being prospectively, over time. Moreover, when people are induced to express traits such as extraversion, there is a downstream impact on momentary assessments of well-being.
Second, how do our traits exert their influence on the subjective quality of our lives? What mechanisms help to explain the links between personality and well-being? Over the years, three kinds of theories have been proposed to answer this question:
- The first kind suggests a direct influence of personality on the biological and cognitive underpinnings of well-being. For instance, personality traits may establish our baseline levels of joy, meaning, contentment, and so on. This well-being set-point is then pushed and pulled about as good and bad things happen to us.
- Another kind of theory suggests instead that personality determines the relative impact of those good and bad things on our well-being. For instance, particular traits may influence the degree to which we are resilient versus vulnerable to the hard knocks of life.
- The third kind of theory suggests that personality influences the likelihood that one encounters the situations, events, and experiences that either build us up or break us down. In other words, our traits may not directly influence our well-being, but rather lead us to the things that do.
All three perspectives have at least some empirical support. For instance, the fact that our well-being is relatively stable over time, returning to baseline after temporary boosts and dips, fits well with set-point theory. But there is also good evidence that extraverts get a bigger boost from positive and rewarding stimuli than their introverted counterparts. Similarly, how negatively one responds to stressors—both psychologically and physiologically—is related to their level of neuroticism.
There is also support for the third kind of theory, such as the finding that extraverts create more positive social experiences, which in turn leads to higher levels of well-being. Thus, personality may shape our well-being through a complex web of distinct and overlapping processes.
Implications for Improving the Quality of Lives
To a practitioner’s eye, the links between personality and well-being may seem troubling. Personality traits are often regarded as fixed and unchanging, which makes them seem like dead-ends on the road to a happier life. Perhaps this is why the subject of personality is conspicuously absent from many discussions of strategies for building well-being. What’s more, if a key determinant of our well-being is fixed and unchanging, might this mean that any attempt to build happiness is doomed from the get-go?
Fortunately, such concerns are predicated on one of the most common misconceptions about personality. It is true that our traits are relatively stable, and it is also true that building sustainable well-being is not easy. But “relatively stable” does not mean “fixed”. Our day-to-day routines are “relatively stable," for all kinds of profound and banal reasons, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be altered. Similarly, personality changes across the lifespan, partly as a function of major life transitions, and also in response to intervention. Individual efforts to tinker with one’s traits can be successful and may be beneficial.
Remember, too, that personality traits influence how strongly we respond to the stimuli and events that impact our well-being. This suggests that different well-being interventions have different effects for different people—their impact is splintered and refracted by the prisms of our character. Personality may even determine whether the overall impact of a particular intervention is beneficial or harmful. Such effects are a nuisance for intervention designers who ignore personality but offer avenues to precision approaches to well-being that intervene at the level of the individual.
Properly understood, the links between personality and well-being have profound implications for enhancing the quality of lives. This has been recognized within psychology, as well as in neighboring fields such as psychiatry, public health, and economics. Yet it is by no means a mainstream perspective. A wider appreciation of the importance of personality for well-being may be constrained by some lingering misunderstandings—such as the myth that traits are "set like plaster." Such confusions can make personality seem like a barrier to the promotion of human flourishing when, in fact, it is an opportunity.
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Anglim, J., Horwood, S., Smillie, L. D., Marrero, R. J., & Wood, J. K. (2020). Predicting Psychological and Subjective Well-Being from Personality: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 146, 279-323. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000226