What makes us happy? The pursuit of happiness is an age-old question. In fact, the psychology of happiness is a topic for much debate amongst experts.
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” Albert Einstein
Einstein suggested a simple outlook on life and to see failure as ‘success in progress’. It all sounds fairly straightforward. So why does a recent poll reveal that only a third of Americans report that they’re happy with their lives? Are there, as some experts suggest, particular personality traits that can predict whether we will be happy or not? Some think there are.
As a matter of fact, the majority of psychological research on personality uses the ‘Big Five’ Personality Traits.
Big Five Personality Traits:
- Openness to experience
Of course, it seems pretty obvious that if a person is an extrovert, open to experiences and agreeable, they are likely to be happy. Likewise, most studies support the theory that happy people have high scores in extraversion and low ones in neuroticism. Even though this may be true, it’s not the full picture.
“When multiple positive end states are examined, it becomes apparent that aspects of psychological well-being may be achieved by more people than just the nonneurotic, extraverted members of society.” (Schmutte & Ryff, 1997)
It is true that most psychologists breathed a sigh of relief when personality traits narrowed from the hundreds to the Big Five. However, a couple of researchers believed the Big Five could do with some fine-tuning.
In particular, one study, from the University of Melbourne divided each of the Big Five Traits into two sub-divisions. Not only that but researchers suggest that it is these smaller traits that give us clues to the psychology of happiness.
The Big Five traits divide into ten sub-divisions as follows:
- Enthusiasm – Outgoing, friendly, sociable.
- Assertiveness – Ambitious, strong-minded, dominant.
- Compassion – Caring, empathy, understanding.
- Politeness – Respectful, well-mannered, civil.
- Industriousness – Diligent, hardworking, self-disciplined.
- Orderliness – Organised, tidy, routine-based.
Openness to experience
- Intellect – Competence, intelligence, mental acuity.
- General openness – Imaginative, creative, reflective outlook.
- Withdrawal – Negative thinking, discouraged, detachment.
- Volatility of mood – Mood swings, unpredictable, unstable.
Of the ten sub-divisions, two traits stood out as prime factors in the search for what makes us happy.
They are enthusiasm (Extraversion) and low withdrawal (a low score in Neuroticism). Of the other sub-divisions, industriousness (Conscientiousness), compassion (Agreeableness), and intellectual curiosity (Openness) showed an association with happiness and wellbeing.
So why these traits in particular? Let’s look at each one in a little more detail to see what they have to do with the psychology of happiness.
Enthusiastic people tend to be sociable, friendly, and fun to be around and they enjoy life to the full. Those who score highly in this trait also are emotionally expressive and like to have a purpose in life. They know where they are going, they experience life in a positive fashion, have less negative emotions and tend to accept themselves for what they are.
If they’re not happy, they are the ones most likely to work to change that. As a result, enthusiastic people have positive relationships, are fully engaged with society and as such, enjoy life and are pretty satisfied with what life has to throw at them.
What do we mean when we say ‘low withdrawal’? For example, low scores in withdrawal indicate a person is not easily overwhelmed by negative emotions, nor do they tend to worry a lot. Likewise, they don’t get discouraged by setbacks and as such, they’re not prone to depression or anxiety.
Not only that but lower scores in the withdrawal trait indicate a greater life satisfaction and more positive emotions. Those that have a lower score are happier with who they are and are more accepting of themselves. They don’t tend to be neurotic or embarrassed and feel they have power over their own futures.
Industrious people like to get on with things, so they are always focusing on the next task or goal. As a result, these types of people are most likely to have determination, purpose and perseverance when it comes to life. They look to the future.
These people are not easily distracted or overwhelmed. Nor are they likely to get depressed when things don’t turn out the way they anticipated. Instead, they will carry on regardless. This trait is linked to achievement and self-discipline.
It is also associated with positive feelings and emotions. Industrious people are typically happy with their lives as they’ve worked hard to create it themselves. This inevitably leads to a higher level of wellbeing.
You might think that compassionate people are a soppy bunch, easily upset and prone to negative emotions. However, the evidence shows that compassion is associated with positive thoughts, empathy and well-being.
Those who feel compassion are more self-accepting and like to find meaning in their life. They engage with others and are kind and thoughtful people. As such, they tend to draw likeminded people to them.
Not to mention the numerous studies that prove when you help others, you feel good about yourself as well. If you care about other people’s welfare, you are likely to improve your own.
Intellectual curiosity is exactly what you might imagine it to be. An enquiring mind, open to new possibilities, someone that enjoys new challenges and interesting debates. This study showed that those people who scored highly in this sub-division tended to accept themselves and enjoyed engaging with life. They felt fulfilled and had a sense of purpose.
The interesting factor about people with high scores in intellectual curiosity is that although they too reflected on their lives (as did those with high withdrawal scores), they used past mistakes to move forward. They didn’t tend to dwell on negative experiences.
So what can we make of this study as a key to the psychology of happiness? The study co-author Scott Barry Kaufman puts it quite succinctly:
“These are five different personal paths to wellbeing. If you score high in any of these five personality aspects, you are probabilistically more likely to have high well-being across multiple aspects of your life.”
In other words, be enthusiastic about trying new experiences, try to not get easily overwhelmed if you have setbacks, if you start a task, then finish it, be kind to others and finally, be curious about life. Sounds like a plan to me.