For years, psychological research has seemed to confirm that two personality characteristics are the most important when determining well-being: extroversion and neuroticism. To have high levels of well-being, you should be an extrovert who isn’t neurotic, studies have long suggested.
This research feeds into what’s known as the ‘Big Five personality traits’, which is a commonly-used model amongst psychologists. The five are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
But a new study has found that it’s not actually as simple as that – humans are, of course, complex beings. Because what if you’re not particularly extroverted or neurotic? How will you find well-being then?
Researchers studied 706 male and female participants with a median age of 36, and analysed the link between multiple aspects of well-being and a broader array of personality dispositions than the original Big Five.
Through their study they found five different personality traits that resulted in high well-being.
Study co-author Scott Barry Kaufman explains: “These are five different personal paths to well-being. 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.”
Enthusiastic people tend to be fun, friendly, sociable and emotionally expressive, and it perhaps isn’t surprising that enthusiastic people tend to lead happy lives.
The researchers found that enthusiasm independently resulted in life satisfaction, positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, personal growth, positive relations, self-acceptance, purpose in life, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement.
2. Low withdrawal
Put simply, this means having an easy relationship with yourself. People with high withdrawal (which comes under neuroticism) are easily embarrassed, overwhelmed and discouraged, they tend to be highly self-conscious and prone to anxiety and depression.
In contrast, those with low withdrawal have greater autonomy, “environmental mastery” and personal growth, as well as many of the traits of enthusiastic people too.
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“People who are industrious are achievement-oriented, self-disciplined, efficient, purposeful and competent,” Kaufman explains, adding that “industriousness is strongly correlated with ‘grit’ – passion and perseverance for long-term goals.”
So those of us who are good at planning ahead, working hard, staying focussed on the task in hand and generally getting things done are also more likely to have greater well-being.
If you’re compassionate, you care about other people, are kind, tend to be interested in the lives of others and are also good at empathising. Compassion comes under agreeableness, and the researchers found that the more compassionate amongst us are happier in their own lives.
So by caring about the well-being of others, you’re more likely to improve your own.
5. Intellectual Curiosity
If you enjoy thinking deeply about complex matters, reflecting on your life experiences, talking about philosophical issues, reading challenging books and you’re open to new ideas, you’re probably highly intellectually curious.
Whilst high intellectual curiosity predicted autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose and accomplishment, it didn’t have any impact on the more emotional variables such as positive relationships and engagement with life.
The researchers found the above five traits were the most crucial in predicting well-being, but they also discovered that assertiveness and creative openness are predictive in certain aspects.
And the findings revealed three surprising traits that bear no influence over well-being: politeness, orderliness and volatility.
So you can perhaps be as polite, tidy and impulsive as you like without diminishing your well-being.
Kaufman concludes by stressing that studies are increasingly confirming you can change your personality, so if you don’t already have any of the five most important traits for well-being, relax – you just have to change who you are as a person.