|Levels of trait “openness to experience”
are higher in central London than other
areas of the city. Image from PNAS.
It is surely easier to be happy in some neighbourhoods than others. But a new study suggests one size does not fit all. Based on data from 56,000 Londoners collected by a BBC initiative, Markus Jokela and his colleagues report that the correlations between different personality dimensions and life satisfaction vary across the capital. The researchers say this shows “finding the best place to live depends on the match between individual dispositions and neighbourhood characteristics.”
Participants filled out a personality and happiness test online as part of the BBC’s Big Personality Test between 2009 and 2011. The test produced scores according to the Big Five personality dimensions (extraversion, neuroticism etc) and a measure of life satisfaction. The researchers then analysed the data by postal district and they also scored the 216 districts according to various neighbourhood dimensions, such as population density and ethnic mix.
This analysis threw up an avalanche of data. Among the highlights, there was evidence of personality clustering. For example, high scorers in the trait “openness to experience” and low scorers in “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” are found in abundance in central London, including Islington and Kings Cross. High extraversion and low neuroticism is common in South West London, for example in Richmond.
Turning to links between happiness, neighbourhood and personality, the researchers found that openness to experience is more strongly tied to greater life satisfaction in neighbourhoods with greater population density and a higher proportion of ethnic and religious minorities. High conscientiousness, by contrast, is more strongly tied to life satisfaction in neighbourhoods characterised by low employment, and by the presence of more people with low conscientiousness and low extraversion. Agreeableness, meanwhile, is tied to happiness in places with more families and more people with low openness to experience and low extraversion.
What to make of these correlations? It’s intuitive that people with a tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas (i.e. high scorers in openness to experience) should be happier in districts characterised by a rich mix of humanity. That high scores in openness are clustered in central London also provides tentative evidence of adaptive clustering – people moving to neighbourhoods that suit them. However, this was the only evidence of such adaptation. The patterns found for high conscientiousness and agreeableness make sense in terms of people with these traits thriving in challenging circumstances.
Links between extraversion and neuroticism and happiness did not vary by neighbourhood. But these were the traits with the strongest links with happiness. This fits past research – for example, it’s well established that extraverts tend to be happier than average.
This research leaves many questions unanswered – for example, because the data were taken from a single point in time, we can’t know whether people’s personalities influence the neighbourhoods they move to, or if their neighbourhoods shape their personalities. Likely it’s both. However, the study breaks new ground in the new field of “geographical psychology”, exploring interactions between personality, place and neighbourhood. Where previous results have focused on which personality traits or neighbourhood characteristics influence happiness, the new findings begin to uncover the messy reality – our happiness depends not just on where we live and the kind of person we are, but on the complex interaction of the two.
Jokela, M., Bleidorn, W., Lamb, M., Gosling, S., & Rentfrow, P. (2015). Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1415800112