Happiness, it’s been said, is the goal of all human endeavour. Why else do we strive to improve medicine, strengthen economies, raise literacy, lower poverty, or fight prejudice? It all boils down to improving human wellbeing.
Psychologists have conducted hundreds of studies of the correlates of wellbeing. You might think well-being is determined by your circumstances – such as the size of your social circle or your pay cheque. These factors are important, but it turns out a far stronger role is played by your personality.
Extroversion is linked to happiness.
Extroversion linked to happiness
All aspects of our personality have links with different aspects of our wellbeing, but one personality trait that seems particularly important is extroversion. Extroversion describes the degree to which one behaves in a bold, assertive, gregarious, and outgoing way. Several studies have shown people who are more extroverted enjoy higher levels of wellbeing.
Some years ago, personality psychologists working in this area came across a powerful idea: what if we could harness the happiness of extroverts simply by acting more like they do? A wave of studies investigating this idea seemed to support it.
For example, lab experiments showed when people were instructed to act extroverted during an interactive task, they felt happier. Surprisingly, even introverts enjoyed acting extroverted in these studies.
Researchers have also used mobile devices to track people’s levels of extroverted behaviour and wellbeing in the real world. This, too, showed people feel happier when acting more extroverted. Again, even people who described themselves as highly introverted felt happiest when acting more like an extrovert.
These findings appeared to suggest engaging in extroverted behaviour could be an effective tool for boosting wellbeing, and potentially form the basis of wellbeing programs and interventions.
But there were critical limitations to this research. Findings from the lab experiments – based on short, contrived interactions among strangers – might not necessarily apply in the real world. And the field studies that tracked people’s behaviour and wellbeing in the real world were correlational. This means they could not tell us whether acting extroverted during everyday life caused increases in wellbeing.
To resolve these uncertainties, we conducted the first randomised controlled trial of extroverted behaviour as a wellbeing intervention, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
What did we find?
We randomly assigned participants in our study to act extroverted, or to a control condition comprising non-extroverted behaviours, for one week of their lives. An additional control group did not receive any acting instructions. We tracked multiple indicators of wellbeing throughout the week, and assessed wellbeing again at the end of the intervention.
On average, people in the “act extroverted” intervention reaped many wellbeing benefits – but these positive effects also hinged on personality. Specifically, more naturally extroverted people benefited the most, but those who were relatively introverted did not appear to benefit at all, and may have even suffered some wellbeing costs.
Although our findings are at odds with previous studies on acting extroverted, they support the cautions offered both by psychologists and self-help writers: there are costs to acting out of character.
Working with your personality
The fact our wellbeing critically depends on our personality sounds like bad news. We like to think we are masters of our destiny, and anyone can be whoever and however they want. But what if our destiny is constrained by our personality?
Our personality shapes our lives, but it also changes, and we can potentially affect these changes ourselves. Personal change may not be easy, but we now know personality is not “fixed”.
Also, the findings of our study don’t suggest you need to be extroverted to be happy. Rather, they show one specific wellbeing intervention is effective for extroverts but less so for introverts. What we now need is more research to help us better understand how wellbeing interventions can best take personality into account.
This is not a new idea. Similar insights underlie personalised medicine, and marketing researchers know advertising is more effective when tailored to the traits of the consumer. Similarly, researchers in positive psychology have often argued wellbeing interventions will be more effective if they’re matched to an individual’s personality.
There’s no silver bullet for happiness. If we want to build our wellbeing, we have to learn how to build it around our personalities.
Luke Smillie is a senior lecturer in personal psychology at the University of Melbourne, Jessie Sun is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis and Rowan Jacques-Hamilton is a research assistant at the University of Melbourne.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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