Individual Happiness is Mediated by Personality

Happiness research is a crowded field. The world doesn’t need another book on happiness (well – except Gretchen Rubin’s forthcoming one). There are too many experts already. There even too many experts on the experts (those who make sense of the experts).

Still, I remain intrigued by it all in my endless quest to try to become even happier. As Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of How of Happiness, said last week during her talk at Claremont, everything in life takes effort — even your emotional life, even your happiness.

New insights on happiness are rare, but today Will Wilkinson reports on something I haven’t seen before:

A recent study by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh tracking 973 pairs of twins shows that the heritable differences in self-reported happiness are entirely accounted for by the genes that determine the Big Five personality traits. That is to say, differences of personality account for all the heritable difference in happiness. In particular, low neuroticism and high extraversion are strongly correlated with higher levels of happiness, high conscientiousness is a bit less strongly correlated, and high agreeableness and openness to experience are positive but not so important. Non-neurotic, conscientious extraverts are the winners in the genetic happiness lottery.

This is important stuff. It tells us that individual variability matters. Individual-level strategies for improving happiness depend a great deal on the art of self-management given the constraints of personality. For example, I am very low in neuroticism and mildly extraverted, which bodes very well for my baseline level of happiness, but I am also extremely low in conscientiousness (not unlike a lot of homeless people and inmates), which ends up creating a lot of internal struggle and anxiety. For me, the key to higher levels of happiness is the conscious development of the habits of self-discipline and time management that don’t come naturally. The highly introverted or neurotic face challenges unique to their types…

And at a more general theoretical level, it is crucial to understand there are differences in the degree to which people revert to their baseline levels of happiness after good or bad changes in circumstances, and in difference in the rate of reversion. That will prevent us from making silly, sweeping generalizations about the insignificance of new cars or a lost limbs. When there is a lot of non-random variation, averages can lie. Regarding my previous post, I think it is important to recognize that not everyone compares themselves strongly to other people. Much of Robert Frank’s body of work is based, I think, on assuming a false uniformity in people’s disposition to compare themselves to others. We can avoid that kind of mistake if we attend more closely to the way individual happiness is mediated by personality.

Great stuff. But I wonder how many people even know where they rank on the different aspects of personality? I, for one, have been embarrassingly delinquent in taking my Myers-Brigg.

Here’s Will’s commentary on Marketplace talking about the real connection between money and happiness. If there were a stock market for public intellectuals, I would buy Will’s stock now. He’s on the rise.

10 comments on “Individual Happiness is Mediated by Personality


    People who go to hospitals have higher rates of death than average. Does that then imply that you should avoid a hospital if sick? NO!

    Analagously, people who are extraverts are happier. Does this then imply that you should become more extraverted? NO!

  • One small point: Wilkinson seems to be speaking within the “Big 5” personality construct, which has
    limited correlation with the Myers-Briggs indicator
    . (Most notably, Myers-Briggs does not measure the notion of “Neuroticism”.)

    Also: One topic which deserves more ink (or pixels) in this area is the possibility of direct modification of happiness parameters. E.g., if you could take a pill that made you more extroverted and less neurotic (thus increasing your baseline happiness), what would be the ethical and self-identity implications of taking it? This guy thinks we must make those pills, though I’m not so sure!

  • Echoing some of Stan James’s points, I have to say the MBTI is an inventory of preferred decision-making styles not a personality test of any sort. Many people’s MBTI labels change as they course through life.

    As for happiness, it is the expectation of its constancy and the relentless pursuit of it that together cause so much distress to many. ‘Into each life, some rain must fall’ and accepting this small pearl of wisdom will probably prepare us better to appreciate happiness when it comes, and cope without pills or other crutches, when things get a little difficult.

    And yes, some people are disposed to remain happy. Why, I was even accused recently of having an ‘irritatingly sunny’ disposition! I much prefer being that way to the dire temperament of my accusing friend 🙂

  • It’s probably an unpopular idea these days, but the Bible book of Proverbs pretty much sums up what it’s taken experts a long time to figure out. If you haven’t already, it’s worth reading, even if you’re not religious.

  • Interesting…I mean, I knew I was really happy, I just wasn’t aware that others have identified specific reasons why. I really appreciated Wilkinson’s comments on money and happiness.

  • @”I, for one, have been embarrassingly delinquent in taking my Myers-Brigg.”

    My God, man, you’re nineteen years old. I wouldn’t sweat it.

    What could be more absurd than over-intellectualizing ‘happiness’, of all things, anyway.

    People who spend the most time obsessing about happiness are the least happy.

    @”…the Bible book of Proverbs pretty much sums up what it’s taken experts a long time to figure out.”

    I pick up my Bible, and open it blindly. It opens at the first page of Proverbs (this is true):

    The Proverbs is one of the most beautifully written and poetic pieces of wisdom literature in all the world, but it’s not a practical guide for living now, unless you’re a devotee of the Calvinistic doctrine that the good are rewarded with long life and riches on this earth.

    Of course, that’s exactly what the late William F. Buckley, Jr. (he was Catholic) thought, Lucas, so perhaps you and he are spiritual brethren.;-)

  • Hoping to constrict experiential moniker like “happiness” within a theoretical matrix is taking Myers-Briggs model too far.

    The model was designed originally to help women select their choice of wartime calling – let’s not forget that 🙂

  • Hihihi, something’s in the water over here…
    “unless you’re a devotee of the Calvinistic doctrine that the good are rewarded with long life and riches on this earth. ”

    would be true, if long life and riches were what brings happiness.

    I think pretty clearly, happiness happens when one has a good set of values, and remains true to them, even if it’s occassionally inconvenient.

    Pilgrimage to Thibet, the Holy Lands or Greece should be on your to do list, if you are to understand..

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