Does having a “good” personality make you happy? Does being happy give you a good personality? What is a good personality anyway?
By Jacob Fass, Kenyon ’14
Personality psychologists spend a great deal of time studying the connection between who you are and how happy you are. It’s not surprising that society values a person who is emotionally stable, outgoing, hardworking and warm more than a person who is withdrawn, unmotivated, disagreeable, and neurotic. At the same time having these valued traits is associated with a better life in all kinds of ways, from more money, to more friends, to higher levels of life satisfaction.
Even though this connection is widely accepted, one question still remains. What causes what? Psychologists have typically assumed that having the right traits leads to happiness, but in a recently published study in the Journal of Personality, Christopher Soto challenges the traditional assumption that the relationship between traits and happiness only works in one way. In fact Soto finds that people who are happier develop more of these “good traits” over time and that traits and happiness influence each other throughout a person’s life.
How would these duel influences work in practice? Take John, who is generally sympathetic and cooperative. No matter what happened to John, he might perceive events through a more optimistic lens then a less agreeable person with the exact same experiences. John would also probably treat his friends and family members with kindness and respect, eliciting positive reactions and leading to stronger relationships, making him happier over time. These are examples of prospective traits effects, in which personality leads to happiness instead of the other way around.
But let’s say we have a person, call him George, who isn’t particularly friendly or cooperative, mean spirited, or obstinate. George is just average. If lots of good things start happening to George, if he ends up in a satisfying relationship or get a big promotion, he will probably be in an excellent mood. Over time these positive emotions might be expressed through higher levels of agreeableness, extraversion or conscientiousness. After all, if you’re in a good mood you probably feel more social, friendly, trusting, and motivated then you would otherwise. This is a well-being effect in which happiness itself changes personality traits.
A lot of psychological research has been conducted on prospective trait effects, and they are a widely accepted framework for understanding personality and happiness. There has been much less research done on well-being effects, and almost no well-designed studies that examine both effects over time. This has left a huge gap in our understanding of personality.
Enter Chris Soto. In his recent study, Soto set out to understand how prospective trait effects and well-being effects work both at the same time and over time. It’s an ambitious undertaking but Soto was helped by the HILDA survey in which a huge sample of 16,000 Australians was questioned in 2005 and 2009. Such a large nationally representative sample collected at different points in time represents the gold standard of psychological data. At both time periods each Australian was asked questions about their personality traits in which they ranked themselves on attributes like how shy or how talkative they were. They were also asked questions about their happiness, their financial situation, their health, and how satisfied they were with their lives.
Soto then compared the personality answers with the happiness answers and examined how they changed over time. Soto looked at four different relationships: the relationship between traits and happiness in 2005, the relationship between traits and happiness in 2009, the relationship between traits in 2005 and happiness in 2009 which would measure prospective trait effects, and the relationship between well-being in 2005 and traits in 2009, which would measure the elusive well-being effect.
Soto found, perhaps not surprisingly, that both traits and well-being stayed fairly consistent over time. He also found that people who were happier tended to have “better” personality traits. The more intriguing results dealt with the well-being and trait effects or how one factor affected the other factor over time. Soto discovered that not only did having good traits in one period lead to more happiness in the next period but that the reverse was true as well. In Soto’s study, at least, there really was a well-being effect where happy people saw their personalities change for the better.
In many ways this is a groundbreaking finding. There are only a few things that can actually change your personality and if happiness is one of them it represents a significant advancement in our understanding of the human psyche. Of course we should remember all of the usual limitations of psychological research before we make any bold and sweeping pronouncements. Unfortunately this study is limited to two time periods and it would be better to have more data points to look at. The study only used people’s self-reports on their own personalities, and while these kinds of self-reports are the foundation of all personality research, it would be nice to have friends and acquaintances report on the subjects’ personalities as well. Finally we should not forget that finding correlation between two variables in a single study, however well designed, cannot prove causation. Only an experiment can do that. Although it’s probably neither plausible nor ethical for researchers to actually change a person’s personality, in an alternate universe, this would be the best way to prove a trait or well-being effect.
Purposeful personality change represents a new frontier in psychological research. After all, if changing the way you behave can change what kind of a person you are, this would have practical implications for millions of people trying to improve themselves. Surely, Soto and other researchers will continue to study exactly how the well-being and prospective trait effects work. In the meanwhile we can all remember the importance of happiness in our day-to-day lives. Not only does it make you feel better but it makes you a better person as well. That is something that we can all smile about.
Soto, Christopher. (2015). Is happiness good for your personality? Concurrent and prospective relations of the Big Five with subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 83(1), 45-55. Available here.