Study of the Day: Want Happiness? Just Change Your Personality

Researchers from the U.K. found that a person's character is not fixed and may actually have the greatest potential to improve well-being.

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PROBLEM: Past research has shown that personality accounts for up to 35 percent of individual differences in life satisfaction, compared to less than five percent each for income, employment, and marital status. Despite this, methods to improve well-being have focused on social and economic factors since it's largely believed that personalities are fixed.

METHODOLOGY: Psychologists from the University of Manchester and London School of Economics and Political Science used a large data set of 7,500 individuals from Australia who had answered questions on their life satisfaction and personality at two time points four years apart. Personality was measured with a questionnaire that assessed openness to experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The researchers then analyzed how changes in these personal attributes stacked up against shifts in income, employment, and marital status when it came to optimizing life satisfaction.

RESULTS: Compared to shifts in these external circumstances, a personality change is just as likely to occur and contributes much more to improvements in our well-being.

CONCLUSION: People's personalities can change considerably over time, and even just small positive developments could lead to greater increases in happiness than a pay raise, marriage, or a new job.

IMPLICATION: Molding a nation's culture through policy changes may be more beneficial than focusing on economics. Lead author Chris Boyce said in a statement, "Fostering the conditions where personality growth occurs -- such as through positive schooling, communities, and parenting -- may be a more effective way of improving national wellbeing than GDP growth."

SOURCE: The full study, "Is Personality Fixed? Personality Changes as Much as 'Variable' Economic Factors and More Strongly Predicts Changes to Life Satisfaction" (PDF), is published in the journal Social Indicators Research.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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