You probably know a few people in your life who seem happiness averse. No matter how much the sun shines or fortune smiles on these sad souls, they just never seem to be enjoying things much. Maybe they’re inveterate worriers or deep-in-the-bone pessimists, but whatever the specifics, some personalities just seem immune to good vibes.
Maybe you’re one of them. If so, a new study out of the Colby Personality Lab might interest you. Turns out that the common-sense wisdom that personality profoundly affects our ability to be happy might be only half the story. According to this new research, personality isn’t the unmovable anchor around which we turn in our search for happiness; character can shift, and happiness can drag our personalities away from their darker tendencies.
Smile Your Way to a New Personality?
The everyday understanding of happiness as fleeting and personality as immutable was challenged by a survey of 16,367 Australians from 2005-2009. The research aimed not just to confirm earlier studies showing that character traits such as neuroticism, unfriendliness, and a distaste for adventure correlate with lower levels of happiness, but also to look at what effect reported well-being had on personality over time. Put simply: Would being happy at the beginning of the study change people’s personality over the four-year period?
Yup, according to the data. The British Psychological Society Research Digest sums up the findings: "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."
The write-up cautions that the study relied on self-reporting of emotional states and personality data, which can sometimes be unreliable, and may have missed other causes affecting these personality shifts. Also, the tendency of happiness to lead to increased introversion surprised the researchers, as more extroverted people tend to be happier. They speculated that being happy may decrease the motivation for already satisfied people to go out and meet new people.
Empowerment, Yes. Judgment, No.
The study results go against the grain of many people’s lived experience but not against the advice of many positive psychology experts who have long argued that the ability to be happy, far from being some inborn gift or fluke of circumstance, is actually, to some extent, a muscle you can work to develop. Presumably, like any muscle, exercise changes it, so that experienecing new habits of thought and ways of looking at the world should change your underlying personality.
All in all, given the choice between being cursed with a happiness-resistant personality for life and hearing that, to some degree, we may be able to change our disposition to increase our well-being, the second option sounds like good news. Though the grumpy among us would no doubt caution that, whatever the studies say, they really shouldn’t be used as further ammunition for those born with a sunny outlook to further blame or misunderstand those not so inclined for their darker outlook or lack of constant cheerfulness. Pessimism has its uses, too.
Do you believe that being happy can change your personality?