“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
What makes a person happy? Is it the friends they keep? The place they work? Or the financial freedom they have achieved? In no surprise to anyone, happiness is a complicated recipe with a long ingredients list. Although humans have been studying the concept of happiness for centuries, making people happy isn’t an exact science yet.
There have been many studies on the external influences over happiness, investigating what annual salary or education leads to greatest joy – but what about the internal influences? How does someone’s personality determine their well being?
Using the Big-5 personality theory, authors Sun, J., Kaufman, and S. B., & Smillie, L. D. have explored the intersection of personality theory on happiness. Their findings, published in the Journal of Personality, tell us there are five common characteristics happy people share.
A Refresher on the Big 5 Personality Theory
If you missed the full post on the Big 5 theory of personality, you probably have a few questions. The Big 5, also called the CANOE or OCEAN theory, is a contemporary philosophy used with psychology to describe and assess personality traits. It uses five dimensions as a way to describe the basis for personality. The “big” five dimensions are as follows:
Each of these character traits is a spectrum, and everyone sits somewhere on that spectrum. For example, one person might be more open to new ideas, while another less open to new ideas. In another example, some people are incredibly extraverted, others entirely introverted, and many sit somewhere in the middle. What makes each of us unique is the totally different combinations of these five big character traits we each possess.
Unlike a personality quiz advertised on Facebook, the Big 5 theory is well-established in psychology. Time and time again, studies have established it as a foundation for the study of personality.
Using the Big-5 foundation, the authors of Unique Associations Between Big Five Personality Aspects and Multiple Dimensions of Well-Being, explored how these five characteristics can predict happiness.
5 Characteristics of Happy People
According to the research done by Kaufman and Smillie, enthusiasm is one of the significant predictors of happiness. Enthusiasm is a sub-trait of extraversion. If you sit high in the extrovert category, you very likely will be excited about new experiences, new people, and new ideas. You have a zest for life and all its many facets.
Enthusiasm is linked to other qualities as well. You might have an outgoing nature, are incredibly energetic, and have an adventurous spirit. No matter what life serves up, you are willing to try a slice.
As per Kaufman and Smillie, an enthusiastic mindset goes hand with happiness.
How to Practice Enthusiasm
- An Enthusiastic Journal: If you struggle to see any fun in your everyday routine, why not transform your gratitude journal into an enthusiastic one. Every evening take five minutes to reflect on the day that was and ask yourself the question, “What made my day exciting?” It might be as simple as the perfect cup of hot coffee in the morning, or a compliment from a stranger. It doesn’t matter how small, write these details down. Every little bit helps to transform your view of the world.
- Schedule Excitement: What truly lights your fire? Do you love to catch the big game on Friday nights at the local bar or watch the latest Marvel movie on the big screen? Every week, be sure to schedule in excitement. Enthusiasm exists because you build it.
- Surround Yourself with Upbeat People: It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm when everyone around you maintains a bleak outlook on life. Seek out people who have positive energy and a pep in their step. Enthusiasm, it turns out, is catching.
2. Low Withdrawal
A low to of non-withdrawal is the second most significant predictor of happiness. In Kaufman and Smillie’s extensive analysis, they concluded, “Enthusiasm and low Withdrawal were the strongest unique predictors of high life satisfaction and positive emotions.”
What is withdrawal? It’s the tendency towards introversion. It is the opposite of extroversion. As an example, a withdrawn person would prefer to avoid significant events and social situations. Other similar personality traits would include quiet, reserved, pensive, and shy.
As the authors of this study discovered, people who had low withdrawal scores had much better scores on the wellbeing analysis. There was a strong association between highly sociable characteristics and positive emotions.
How to Lower Withdrawal (Become More Extroverted)
- Practice Small Talk: Nobody said it’s easy to break out of your shell and talk to people, but it does get better with practice. Start chatting to people around you, whether that’s the barista serving you coffee or a colleague at work. Ask simple questions, and start with people you feel comfortable with. Slowly expand beyond your comfort zone.
- Set a Timer on Social Situation: If socializing feels exhausting to you, set a timer. At the next event or birthday party, give yourself 60 minutes to socialize with others. This timer gives you an easy exit, and you won’t need to keep looking at the clock. It’s a little dose of social interaction, which might help build up a tolerance for it.
Orderliness describes a preference for an organized, careful, and thoughtful environment. In the Big-5 Theory, orderliness is a quality that sits underneath the conscientious dimension.
To understand why orderliness is associated with a higher level of happiness, it’s simplest to look at the flip side to this personality trait: disorderly. A few words come to mind within a disordered life: chaos, carelessness, irresponsible, and forgetful.
A disordered life is very clearly, a stressful one.
How to Practice Orderliness
- Declutter Regularly: Cluttered surroundings indicate a cluttered mind. Adopt a Marie Kondo approach to surround yourself with less. As Marie Kondo says, “What brings you joy?”
- Learn to Delegate: Orderliness doesn’t just describe physical belongings; it might also represent a chaotic schedule or to-do list. If you learn to delegate, you won’t be pulled in a dozen different directions. With less on your plant, you’ll finally have time to focus on the things which matter most.
- Start a Morning Routine (and Stick with it): Develop a 30 minute morning routine. Every single morning, if you do nothing else, practice this routine. Starting every day with 30 minutes of scheduled routine will set your day up for success. Who knows, the practice might eventually spread to other areas of your life.
Another common personality trait among happy people is compassion. Compassion, as defined by Greater Good, is “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”
When you have compassion for others, it means caring for others. According to the research by Kaufman and Smillie, this quality can also predict happiness.
One reason why compassion might improve wellbeing is that it improves your relationships with others. You care about others, you strive to help them in times of need, and this builds strong relationships. Compassion for others makes strong relationships, which in turn, circles back to benefit you by increasing happiness – it’s a win-win-win situation.
How to Practice Compassion
- Practice Loving Kindness Meditation: The loving-kindness meditation fosters compassion for yourself, then for friends, and eventually for strangers. It starts with simple meditative breathing and repetition of the phrases “May I be free of suffering,” “May I be at ease,” and “May I be happy.” Eventually, you expand the meditation to wish these same experiences on loved ones. Finally, you meditate on the world around you.
- Volunteer: What better way to work on creating compassion than volunteering at a local charity? Volunteering for others is an instant way to end suffering, and a sure-fire way to build empathy.
If intellect predicts wellbeing, does that mean only intelligent people can be happy? Intellect, in this sense, describes a curiosity, not an IQ level. Within the Big 5 theory, intellect is a trait under the Openness dimension.
Intellectually curious people enjoy new ideas and deep thinking exercises. They are openly curious about the world around them and always interested in personal growth. It’s more about having a big imagination and insightful qualities than scoring high on an IQ test.
How to Boost Intellect
- Start with a Passion: You don’t have to be curious about everything all the time. Why not start with something you already are passionate about? Maybe you love football, hiking, or painting. How can you expand on this passion and learn more about it? Make a list of documentaries, online courses, and books that can develop your intellect on the subject.
- Do a 30 Day Challenge: Part of the definition of intellect is the drive for personal growth. Take part in a 30-day challenge to push yourself towards a personal goal. Again, you get to choose, so make it something you feel passionate about already. A few suggestions to get you started: read for 30 minutes every day, learn a new language with duo-lingo, or reach a running goal through daily runs.
Building Happiness Through Character Evolution
Based on the in-depth analysis by Kaufman and Smillie, five common characteristics predict wellbeing. The strongest predictors are enthusiasm and a tendency to not withdraw within social situations. Secondary predictors to happiness include orderliness, compassion, and intellect.
Many assume the personality traits we were born with – we will be stuck with forever. But, to the contrary, we are always growing and always evolving. For example, as we age, we tend to become more agreeable and less neurotic. If this already happens naturally, imagine the possibilities if you actively try to become more open, friendlier, and more conscientious? What steps are you going to take to increase happiness by building your character?