How Personality Leads to Happiness

What makes people happy?

The answer varies from person to person.


For example, think about attending a social gathering…


Some theories (and even basic intuition) would suggest that a very extraverted person would be happy in this situation, whereas a more introverted person would be less happy—they might even wish they’d just stayed home.

But this isn’t what really happens.


Accurately predicting people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors requires a data-driven approach.


Acting extraverted makes everyone happy

One interesting series of studies tracked people’s levels of extraversion and happiness over time, and even manipulated extraverted behavior in an experiment.


In one study, researchers checked in with people every 3 hours over the course of 2 weeks, and found that everyone was happier in the situations where they acted more extraverted.

Another study looked at overall levels of extraverted behavior and happiness. Whenever someone had a more “extraverted” week, they were still in a better mood by the end of that week.

As an experiment, the researchers simply asked some people to be more talkative and outgoing. These participants became more talkative and outgoing, and experienced a positive boost in happiness as a result—regardless of how introverted or extraverted they were in general.


Understanding the situation

Another group of researchers were intrigued by these findings, and conducted similar studies in the US, China, Japan, Venezuela, and the Philippines.

They found almost no differences across cultures. Consistently, it was the immediate situation that mattered.


These studies found that people who were more extraverted were happier in social situations after all, but only in some situations.


There were some situations in which people felt free to “be themselves.”

These were the situations in which people would actually behave in certain ways (such as acting more extraverted, agreeable, and open).


Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why more extraverted people were only sometimes happier in social situations.

If they didn’t feel free to act extraverted, they didn’t get the same happiness boost.


(And it’s still really interesting that people who are more introverted can get the same happiness boost in situations where they feel free to act extraverted).


What have we learned?

If we were just using a simple theory or intuition, we would probably tell people who are more introverted that they don’t enjoy social situations as much as other people.

But this would be untrue. It’s simply not supported by the evidence.


Even worse, we might suggest that they should avoid some social situations.

This would be bad advice, leading them to miss out on opportunities that could provide a nice, easy boost to their happiness.


And just imagine how foolish it would be if we tried to arbitrarily divide people into separate personality ‘types’ based on their levels of introversion/extraversion.


Doing this would result in providing inaccurate information and bad advice to everyone we labeled as an ‘intovert.’ About 50% of people!

That’s bad.


If we want to truly understand how personality influences important outcomes, and to provide accurate descriptions and advice, there is only one way to do it.

Test it.

Know the specific outcomes, know the relevant situations. Be data-driven.




Image credits: Aimanness Photography, Eric McGregor

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