Outgoing, conscientious, friendly people who are open to new experiences tend to be happier than those who are more shy, unadventurous, neurotic and unfriendly. It’s easy to imagine why this might be so. Barely studied before now, however, is the possibility that being happy could also alter your future personality.
Christopher Soto has conducted the first thorough study of this question. He analysed personality and well-being results for 16,367 Australians surveyed repeatedly between 2005 and 2009. He was curious to see if personality measures at the study start were associated with particular patterns of well-being later on, and conversely, whether well-being at the start was associated with personality changes later on.
Soto replicated past findings for the influence of personality on well-being. But more exciting is that he found higher well-being at the study start was associated with various changes to personality. Happy people tended to become more agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable and introverted over time. This last finding – higher well-being leading to more introversion – was opposite to what was expected, given that higher extraversion usually leads to future happiness. Soto isn’t sure of the reason happier people appear to become more introverted, but he speculated it may be because they no longer need to seek out new relationships.
Looking at the size of the relationships between well-being and personality and vice versa over time, Soto said that both were pervasive and important but the influence of personality on well-being was “somewhat stronger”. In both cases, the associations were modest, but Soto said we shouldn’t assume they are unimportant. Any observed links are likely underestimates and will accumulate over time. “Even small changes to an individual’s personality traits or subjective well-being can have important consequences for the course of his or her life,” Soto said.
The study has some limitations – it relied on participants’ reports of their own personality and well-being (this included measures of life satisfaction; positive and negative affect). Despite the longitudinal design, it’s also possible that unknown factors played a causal role, and that the mutual links between personality and well-being are correlational rather than causal. Assuming that well-being really does cause changes in personality, future research is needed to explore what the underlying mechanisms might be.
“These findings challenge the common assumption that associations of personality traits with subjective well-being are entirely, or almost entirely, due to trait influences on well-being,” said Soto. “They support the alternative hypothesis that personality traits and well-being aspects reciprocally influence each other over time.”
Soto CJ (2014). Is Happiness Good for Your Personality? Concurrent and Prospective Relations of the Big Five with Subjective Well-Being. Journal of personality PMID: 24299053
The Digest guide to happiness.