Scientists have identified several personality traits the can help you get happy. [Photo: Bigstock]

What does it take to be happy?

3 February, 2017

Happiness is an important part of mental and physical well-being.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it takes to live a happy life you’re not alone – though the science of happiness is not as well-advanced as, say, the science of nutrition.

Nevertheless scientists do recognise a ‘Big Five’ emotional states that feed into our well-being. These are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Two of these – extroversion and neuroticism – seem to be particularly influential. Studies show, for instance, that the more extroverted you are, the more likely you are to be happy and satisfied with your life. In contrast the lower your levels of neuroticism the higher your overall well-being tends to be.

But of course people are complex and don’t always fit neatly into tiny ‘boxes’ of personality traits.  It’s a sure bet that there are more than the Big Five personality traits that influence well-being, and in a new paper researchers have acknowledged this by splitting each of the five main aspects into two, in order to produce a more nuanced picture of happiness.

What you need to know

» The science of happiness is still in its infancy, but certain personality traits do seem to be influential.These are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

» But because humans are complex and personality is nuanced, a new study has broken these down further and identified a further five traits that influence happiness: enthusiasm, low withdrawal, industriousness, compassion and intellectual curiosity.

» The good news is that even if you don’t fall into these categories – to some extent and with some work – personality ‘makeovers’ are possible and may even help you find a bit of happy in your life.

Adding complexity

The paper in the Journal of Personality, identified five different personality traits that can put you on the path to greater happiness. You don’t have to embody every one of them but, say the researchers, you’re likely to be more satisfied with your life if you are at least one of them.

Those five traits are:

Enthusiasm If you are enthusiastic you define yourself as someone who “has a lot of fun” and “laughs a lot”. Enthusiasm is an extension of extroversion, and has to do with how you relate to others: enthusiastic people tend to make friends easily, and they warm up quickly to others. They also tend to get carried away by their excitement. Enthusiastic people inevitably fall into the category of those who are enjoying life.

Low withdrawal Not an emotional state most of us recognise, withdrawal is related to neuroticism, and people who score highly in this trait have an uneasy relationship with themselves; they can be easily embarrassed, overwhelmed, and discouraged.

Industriousness If you’re the sort of person who likes to get things done you are probably also happier with your life. Industriousness is linked to conscientiousness, and industrious people tend to plan ahead, work hard, are efficient and like to finish what they started.

Compassion Compassion is an extension of agreeableness. If you are compassionate you care about others and their lives; it pleases you to perform small acts of kindness for people you know, but also for strangers. Broaden your consciousness to include more than just your own problems and it can lead to happiness.

Intellectual curiosity It’s so easy to shut down, especially these days. But maintaining a high level of curiosity, getting stuck into complex problems, difficult books, and meandering philosophical conversations is a facet of openness. If you are intellectually curious you are a quick learner and thinker, you cultivate a large vocabulary and are able to juggle lots of information at once.  Curiosity, it turns out doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.

But some traits don’t matter

The study authors also identified three aspects of personality that didn’t seem to have an impact on well-being for good or ill. These were:

Politeness People who score high in politeness tend to be fair and considerate, respect others’ needs and wants, and cooperate easily. Amazingly though, politeness couldn’t be linked to any form of well-being. But it’s probably a good idea to practice it anyway!

Orderliness Orderly people like things tidy and the love routine. They also tend to be perfectionists. Although orderliness did not affect happiness and well-being people who were overly orderly did seem to score lower on the personal growth scale – but then personal growth, as any psychologist could tell you, can sometimes be a messy process.

Volatility Volatile people are prone to mood swings and irritability, and have difficulties with impulse control. While volatility combined with low withdrawal did impact well-being, those who were volatile, but didn’t worry too much about that fact, were less affected.

If you feel that you don’t fit into any of these boxes never fear. Studies are increasingly confirming we can tweak – even change – our personalities, to reach a greater state of well-being.

Like any kind of ‘makeover’ it’s not automatic, but doing what you can to bring a little more happiness into your life may well be worth the effort.