- Being bogged down with worries and busy schedules can keep you from taking the time just to be a bit silly.
- New research on a long-term study of adults shows the value of taking a break from all those cares and woes.
- Taking time to build your openness to new and fun ideas and activities will also build your fulfillment.
There is much to worry about, from your own financial security to concerns about world events and their possible impact on you and those you love. Life can also become burdened with a panoply of obligations. If you have children in school, not only might you worry about how well they’re doing, but also about how to get them around to all of their activities, including (and especially) on weekends. If you’ve got work and family schedules that occupy every waking moment, how could you ever manage to carve out some time just to laugh and relax?
You might maintain that you’ve always been more focused on “doing” than on “enjoying.” As far back as you can remember, obligations have remained uppermost in your personal agenda. When you were in school, perhaps it was you who created a full schedule for yourself as you tried to cram in as many extracurricular activities as possible. Maybe you even felt guilty when you weren’t studying or doing something useful.
Long-term studies on personality have explored the stability of the “Five Factor” traits of conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness to experience only to find that you're not stuck with the ones you had when you were younger. More to the point, these traits may be related to an individual’s “subjective well-being,” or sense of happiness.
Of these traits, you might think the most important would be having low levels of neuroticism. However, a new study suggests there’s more to the equation than the tendency to worry and fret.
How Does Personality Contribute to Well-being?
According to Keimyung University’s Mohsen Joshanloo (2023), “A widely accepted view is that subjective well-being (SWB) is partly determined by personality traits” (p. 1). Previous research has demonstrated that, indeed, neuroticism (low) combined with extraversion (high) are the strongest SWB predictors, but this relationship is based only on cross-sectional findings. As you undoubtedly know, “correlation is not causation,” so the fact that SWB has these correlations in a one-shot test can be difficult to interpret.
Instead, Joshanloo believes that, by using longitudinal data that is collected over time, it can be possible to tease out these causal connections. Personality might predict SWB, but what about the opposite pattern? Specifically, with regard to openness to experience (ability to have fun), might previous studies have failed to detect what could be an important contributor to happiness?
Can Change Predict Change?
As the Keimyung U. researcher points out, even previous longitudinal studies have failed to provide information that would be helpful in understanding causal connections. Rather than study what’s called “within-person” change, or the variations within an individual over time, these studies have focused instead on “between-person” change, or how individuals as a group evolve. They’ve also been too short in length.
Without getting too far into the statistical details, Jonshaloo used a modeling procedure that allowed him to track connections, over time, between “deviations from the typical level” of a person’s scores on personality and SWB. This analysis could provide answers to the question of whether changes within an individual at one time are predictive of changes in that individual at a later time. In other words, if you start to pick up your openness levels now, would you become happier down the road?
The data from Jonshaloo’s study came from the well-established “Midlife in the United States” (MIDUS) study conducted from 1995 to 2014, with three test occasions. By the end of this period, there were data available from 6,464 individuals, averaging 47 years old at the first MIDUS testing.
The personality-SWB connection was tested with Brief Five Factor questionnaires along with measures of SWB and life satisfaction. The SWB measure specifically asked participants to rate their levels of six positive and six negative emotions over the past 30 days. Satisfaction ratings included ratings in the areas of work, health, relationship with spouse/partner, and relationship with children. You can see that these measures were relatively brief, but this was a benefit because it kept the overall questionnaire to a reasonable length.
After testing the within-person change model, Jonshaloo established that, surprisingly, neuroticism scores were not related to SWB over time, nor was agreeableness. Increasing levels of SWB did predict future increases in conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness. However, only openness showed a reciprocal relationship to SWB, “making this trait a key player in the temporal interplay between personality and SWB” (p. 10).
Why might openness be so important? As Jonshaloo points out, being open to emotions could also make you more aware of your feelings of misery as well as joy. Over time, however, “having an open mind and potentially diverse new experiences” could have “a positive long-term effect on SWB” (p. 11). This finding, he suggests, is consistent with the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions, meaning that when you’re feeling good, you expand your awareness, and then seek to explore new thoughts and actions. As this process unfolds, your positivity should only grow further.
This neglected personality trait, the author concludes, “should no longer be dismissed as irrelevant to SWB.”
Bringing the Fun Back Into Your Life
Clearly, the MIDUS-based study suggests that opening your mind now can have many positive downstream effects on your happiness. It might make you a teeny bit uncomfortable to release yourself from the heavy demands of your schedule—but if you can, your own happiness can start to broaden and build just as the theory would predict.
You can even have fun within the stranglehold of your schedule. As you’re dragging yourself from Point A to Point B (or C or D), see whether you can amuse yourself by listening to a comedy podcast or a funny song from one of your favorite movies. If you’re with other people, perhaps children, learn from them about what makes them feel like laughing, and then share a funny moment with them.
If you’re so much of a heavy-duty scheduler, though, perhaps the solution for you is to “schedule” some fun. Figure out how you can block out even 30 minutes to do something that you love, but always thought was too time-consuming or expensive. If you were an avid Lego builder as a kid, buy yourself an adult kit. If it seems like it’s going to cost too much, give up your daily latte for a week. Not only will such playful activity be fun, but it can also strengthen your cognitive abilities as you put your spatial skills to the test.
To sum up, having fun isn’t just pleasurable, it’s also beneficial to the development of your personality and sense of well-being. Fulfillment can involve more than meeting your goals; it can also result from putting those goals to the side for a while, and just having a good time.
Joshanloo, M. (2023). Within-person associations between subjective well-being and big five personality traits. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 24(6), 2111–2126. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-023-00673-