People with different personality traits tend to experience different degrees of subjective well-being. Specifically, in terms of the Big Five trait dimensions—Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism (vs. Emotional Stability), and Openness to Experience—individuals who are more extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable tend to experience greater satisfaction with life, more frequent positive affect, and less frequent negative affect (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998; Steel, Schmidt, & Shultz, 2008). Do such associations between personality traits and well-being aspects indicate that traits influence subjective well-being, that well-being influences traits, or both? The present research was conducted to test these possibilities by examining concurrent and prospective relations of the Big Five with life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect, using longitudinal data from a large, nationally representative sample.
Why Might Personality Traits Influence Subjective Well-Being?
Personality traits might influence subjective well-being directly or indirectly. For example, highly extraverted individuals tend to experience higher baseline levels of positive affect, and have stronger affective responses to positive events, than do their introverted peers; similarly, highly neurotic individuals tend to experience more chronic negative affect, and have especially intense reactions to negative events (Bolger & Schilling, 1991; Gross, Sutton, & Ketelaar, 1998; Headey & Wearing, 1989; Luhmann & Eid, 2009). These direct effects of personality traits on positive and negative affect may help explain why extraverted and emotionally stable individuals generally experience greater well-being.
Personality traits may also influence subjective well-being indirectly, by way of behaviors and their resulting outcomes. For example, compared with their disagreeable peers, highly agreeable individuals tend to engage in more prosocial behaviors, such as cooperating with others, expressing compassion and support for others, and treating others with politeness and respect (Graziano & Tobin, 2009). Perhaps as a result, agreeable individuals tend to be better liked by their peers (Jensen-Campbell et al., 2002; Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993) and more successful in establishing stable and satisfying close relationships (Karney & Bradbury, 1995; Robins, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2002). These positive social outcomes may then bolster agreeable individuals’ subjective well-being. Similarly, highly conscientious individuals tend to perform tasks efficiently, thoroughly, and reliably, which leads to success in school and the workplace (Barrick, Mount, & Judge, 2001; Berry, Ones, & Sackett, 2007; Noftle & Robins, 2007). Such success brings material (e.g., income) and psychological (e.g., sense of purpose) rewards, both of which may contribute to the positive association between conscientiousness and subjective well-being.
Why Might Subjective Well-Being Influence Personality Traits?
There are also plausible reasons to suspect that sustained high or low levels of subjective well-being might influence people’s personality traits. For example, suppose that an individual leads a life that consistently generates high levels of life satisfaction and positive effect. Being in a good mood typically leads to sociable, generous, and exploratory behavior (George & Brief, 1992; Isen, 1987; Fredrickson, 1998). Over time, a consistent pattern of such behavior may become integrated into the individual’s self-concept and other psychological systems, thereby leading to enduring increases in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Openness to Experience. Conversely, life circumstances that consistently produce negative emotions may lead an individual to internalize this unpleasant effect, as well as the pattern of socially withdrawn, self-focused, and cautious behavior that often accompanies negative moods (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001; Mor & Winquist, 2002; Rubin & Burgess, 2001). In terms of personality traits, this would manifest as an increase in Neuroticism, as well as decreases in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Openness.
Subjective well-being may also influence personality traits by providing a psychological incentive for certain patterns of behavior. As discussed in the previous section, agreeable behavior generally increases the likelihood of social success, conscientious behavior promotes success in school and the workplace and experiencing either kind of success can at least temporarily boost subjective well-being. The cycle need not end there: the individual’s desire to maintain high well-being may motivate them to continue behaving agreeably and conscientiously in the future, leading to further success and well-being, and so on. If this positive feedback loop sustains itself over an extended period of time (e.g., through investment in an enduring close relationship or successful career; see Roberts & Wood, 2006), the individual may gradually internalize the behavioral pattern, thereby increasing their trait levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.
Testing the Influences of Personality Traits and Subjective Well-Being
How can we determine whether personality traits influence subjective well-being and whether well-being influences personality traits?This study will also let you know how to get ride from Neurotic.Many previous studies have examined concurrent correlations between personality traits and well-being aspects: associations between trait and well-being measures administered at a single time point, or between stable trait and well-being levels estimated using information from multiple time points (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998; Steel et al., 2008). Some longitudinal studies have also reported change correlations: associations of individual-level personality changes with changes in well-being (e.g., Boyce, Wood, & Powdthavee, 2013; Watson & Humrichouse, 2006).
These studies have generally found positive concurrent and change correlations of subjective well-being with Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, as well as negative correlations with Neuroticism.
Although concurrent and change correlations are often interpreted as evidence that personality traits influence well-being, such correlations are in fact perfectly ambiguous regarding causal direction. Finding a concurrent correlation between a trait and a well-being aspect establishes an empirical association, but does not indicate the causal source of that association: the trait, the well-being aspect, or a third variable. Similarly, finding a change correlation establishes that a trait and a well-being aspect tend to change in unison, but does not indicate whether changes in the trait lead to changes in well-being or vice versa.
Stronger evidence of causal influence would come from testing prospective effects on change. For example, finding a prospective trait effect—that initial levels of a personality trait predict subsequent changes in subjective well-being—would suggest that the personality trait led to change in well-being because the reverse causal pathway (from the later change in well-being to the earlier trait level) is chronologically impossible. Similarly, finding a prospective well-being effect—that initial levels of subjective well-being predict subsequent changes in personality traits—would suggest that well-being led to personality change.
A pair of longitudinal studies has examined whether levels of Extraversion and Neuroticism predict change in positive and negative affect over time (Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001; Griffin, Mroczek, & Spiro, 2006). Both studies found that highly neurotic individuals tend to increase in negative affect, relative to their emotionally stable peers, and one study (Charles et al., 2001) also found that highly extraverted individuals tend to show relative increases in positive effect. These findings support the hypothesis that personality traits influence affective well-being. However, neither study tested for well-being effects on personality change.
Helping to address this asymmetry, a recent study used personality and life satisfaction data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP; see Haisken-Denew & Frick, 2005) to estimate both trait and well-being effects (Specht, Egloff, & Schmulke, 2013). Unexpectedly, this study found more evidence for life-satisfaction effects on personality change than for trait effects on change in life satisfaction. Specifically, individuals with higher stable levels of life satisfaction tended to become more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable over time, relative to their dissatisfied peers. Conversely, there was only one significant trait effect: individuals with higher stable levels of Agreeableness tended to become relatively more satisfied over time. Unlike in Charles et al. (2001) and Griffin et al. (2006), neither Extraversion nor Neuroticism levels predicted change in well-being.
Taken together, these three studies suggest that personality traits influence change in subjective well-being (Charles et al., 2001; Griffin et al., 2006) and, surprisingly, that well-being may have an even stronger influence on personality change (Specht et al.., 2013). However, integrating their results is complicated by three issues. First, only one study tested for well-being effects (Specht et al., 2013). Second, each study found a different pattern of trait effects, and only one study assessed all of the Big Five traits (Specht et al., 2013). Third, different studies assessed different aspects of subjective well-being: two examined only positive and negative affect (Charles et al., 2001; Griffin et al., 2006), whereas the third examined only life satisfaction (Specht et al., 2013). Thus, the provocative—but incomplete and inconsistent—pattern of results from these studies highlights the need for longitudinal research that (a) assesses all of the Big Five personality traits, (b) assesses all three core aspects of subjective well-being: life satisfaction, positive affect, and negative affect, and (c) tests for both trait and well-being effects. To our knowledge, no previous study has fulfilled all three of these design criteria.