- Barring extreme circumstances, happiness originates from the inside more than the outside.
- Certain personality traits such as low neuroticism, high positivity, benevolence and curiosity are closely linked to happiness.
- Our personalities are not entirely malleable, but we can all do things to cultivate happiness-inducing qualities in ourselves.
by Dr. Pelin Kesebir
What would you say if I asked you what you need for greater contentment?
I doubt that many of you would respond with, “a better disposition." When it comes to increasing our happiness, rather than changing our internal qualities, most of us first think of changing our external conditions.
This focus is understandable, as external conditions clearly impact our happiness. Were this not the case, we would not be observing dramatically different average happiness levels among world countries. That people in Finland are much more content with their lives than people in Afghanistan doubtlessly has something to do with the prevailing living conditions in these countries and cannot simply be explained by the dispositions of the Finns and the Afghans.
While external circumstances play an undeniable role in our happiness, a striking finding from the science of happiness is that this role is more limited than many of us imagine. Studies suggest that only about 10-15 percent of the variance in people's well-being can be attributed to external circumstances. Once people can meet their basic needs without difficulty, the effect of income on happiness starts to diminish and eventually reaches a satiation point, at which higher incomes no longer lead to greater well-being. If we already have a fairly decent and secure life, it appears that the “happiness returns” from improving our external conditions will be quite modest.
Improving the conditions of our internal life—the habits of our mind and heart—on the other hand, turns out to hold a lot of promise as a happiness strategy. Data supports the age-old wisdom that the source of happiness lies within. A meta-analysis, for example, reports that personality traits—our habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving—account for 63 percent of the subjective well-being differences between people. We witness the effects of personality when two otherwise comparable people interpret and respond to the exact same life event—a break-up, a lay-off, or a pandemic—in quite different ways. One person might be psychologically crushed by these events and fall into despair, whereas another might maintain positivity and appreciate the new opportunities provided by these events.
This example also illustrates why objective life conditions have only limited power in predicting subjective well-being. Everything that happens in the external world passes through our internal filters—filters shaped by our personality. It is those filters that process the raw material of life and transform it into greater or lesser happiness. Some of us have filters that are better equipped to produce happiness, and the important question then becomes: What kind of a personality is most conducive to happiness? What does research say about happiness and personality? What are those internal qualities that most distinguish happy and less happy people?
Neuroticism, as a psychological term, refers to a predisposition to experience negative emotions. These emotions can include anxiety, sadness, anger, or guilt, and each of them are entirely natural and even the happiest of people get their share of these emotions. However, experiencing negative emotions too frequently, intensely, and well beyond what the situation calls for is incompatible with well-being. Research thus robustly links happiness to low levels of neuroticism.
Like other personality traits, neuroticism is partially heritable and it would be wrong to assume that it is endlessly malleable. That said, we know that it is possible to reduce our neuroticism through psychological interventions such as therapy, psychoeducation, and mindfulness or meditation training. Leading a physically healthy lifestyle (e.g., exercise, adequate sleep, a nutritious diet) also helps us better regulate negative emotions.
Whereas neuroticism is the propensity to experience negative emotions, positivity can be thought of as the propensity to experience positive emotions (e.g., joy, love, hope, gratitude). Some scholars have defined positivity as “a pervasive mode of appraising, viewing, and perceiving life from a positive stance.” People high in this trait are good at seeing and appreciating the good in life, which serves as a powerful source of resilience in the face of adversity. Closely related to positivity is the trait of optimism, which represents a positive stance toward the future. Optimism, too, is linked to both psychological and physical well-being.
One way to cultivate greater positivity is to train ourselves to notice the good around us. Practicing gratitude would be effective for this purpose, as gratitude is about consistently orienting us to what is going well in our life. Another method to cultivate positivity is teaching our minds to look at things from a more constructive perspective. When things don’t go our way, the habit of asking certain questions can help to adopt this more charitable perspective—questions such as, “How can I turn this situation into something better?” or, “What are the lessons I can learn from this?”
Research suggests that happier people have a more positive and prosocial orientation toward others. They possess qualities such as being loving, warm, benevolent, sincere, helpful, and generous. Healthy relationships are absolutely necessary to happiness and the aforementioned qualities serve their possessors partly by making such relationships possible. It appears that “being good” and “feeling good” are closely related, as many philosophers throughout the ages have argued. This link between virtuous qualities and happiness is an exciting discovery of the science of happiness.
Although it may come as surprising to some, curiosity is one of the personality traits that exhibits the strongest relations with life satisfaction. Happier people typically perceive the world as a rich and fascinating place and have many interests. It is not difficult to imagine how curiosity adds joy and zest to life. Curiosity is also characterized by low levels of self-focus: The individual’s attention is turned outside itself, which itself is linked to greater well-being. To cultivate greater levels of curiosity, we could set aside time to follow our interests and create opportunities for exploration and discovery in our lives.
Is It Possible to Change Our Personality?
Several lines of research suggest that personality change is possible, even if not easy. Although we cannot fashion a new personality from scratch, we can mold our personality in the direction we want. We may never become the most optimistic person that we know, but we can definitely become a more optimistic person than we currently are. Maybe procrastination will never completely disappear from our life, but it can visit us less frequently and for shorter periods.
Our work at the Center for Healthy Minds emphasizes the plasticity of well-being. We should know that the plasticity of well-being partly arises from the plasticity of personality. We have the potential to increase our happiness, no matter how small the changes we make to our personality. Such changes are worth striving for, because they would be a gift not only to ourselves, but also to the people around us, and ultimately the world.
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