Is ‘Well-being’ a Pre-defined Set of Traits?

March 13, 2017 Richard Justenhoven

The Personality Characteristics that Predict Well-being

Well-being is one of those topics that come to the fore at HR conferences and events as we all try to help employees to become balanced, rounded and content individuals – and to maintain this.

In a recent blog post, Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute and a researcher and lecturer in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at whether there are specific personality traits more likely to be associated with well-being.

He states that it has been shown time and again that the two major personality traits most predictive of well-being from the Big Five Model of Personality are Extraversion (high score) and Neuroticism (low score).  But what it you’re not extraverted or are neurotic? Can you never achieve ‘well-being’ – and indeed, what does this mean?

Kaufman outlines the 11 Dimensions of Well-being that have been investigated over time and which are based on three prominent models of well-being (Subjective Well-Being, Psychological Well-Being, and PERMA):

  1. High positive emotions (high frequency and intensity of positive moods and emotions)
  2. Low negative emotions (low frequency and intensity of negative moods and emotions)
  3. Life satisfaction (a positive subjective evaluation of one’s life, using any information the person considers relevant)
  4. Autonomy (Being independent and able to resist social pressures)
  5. Environmental mastery (Ability to shape environments to suit one’s needs and desires)
  6. Personal growth (Continuing to develop, rather than achieving a fixed state)
  7. Positive relations (Having warm and trusting interpersonal relationships)
  8. Self-acceptance (Positive attitudes toward oneself)
  9. Purpose and meaning in life (A clear sense of direction and meaning in one’s efforts, or a connection to something greater than oneself)
  10. Engagement in life (being absorbed, interested, and involved in activities and life)
  11. Accomplishment (goal progress and attainment, and feelings of mastery, efficacy, and competence)

In his post, Kaufman refers to a recent study by Kaufman, Sun and Smillie which analysed the link between multiple aspects of well-being and a broader array of personality traits. He used a newer model of personality which breaks down each of the Big Five traits into two separate aspects. This, he argues, broadens the measures of well-bring and helps to get a better understanding of the link between personality and well-being.

So which personality traits are most predictive of well-being?

Kaufman reports that the findings from two independent samples (one which he collected in collaboration with Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution) were strikingly similar. Out of the 10 aspects of personality:

  • 5 were broadly related to well-being;
  • 2 showed more limited links to well-being;
  • 3 aspects of personality were just not predictive of well-being.

He pinpoints these 5 personality traits as being independently related to a wide range of well-being measures. So, if you score high in any of these 5 personality aspects, you are likely to have well-being across many areas in your life.

  1. Enthusiasm – Those that score high in this tend to be friendly, sociable, emotionally expressive, and tend to have lots of fun in life. It independently predicts life satisfaction, positive emotions, less negative emotions, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations, self-acceptance, purpose in life, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement.
  2. Low Withdrawal – Low scores on withdrawal predict greater life satisfaction, positive emotions, and less negative emotions. It also predicts greater autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, meaning and purpose, relationships, and achievement.
  3. Industriousness – Those who score highly are achievement-oriented, self-disciplined, efficient, purposeful, and competent.  It correlates highly with ‘grit’ and predicts life satisfaction, positive emotions, less negative emotions, and more autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, meaning and purpose, engagement, and achievement.
  4. Compassion – High scores on compassion indicate a feeling for and care about others’ emotions and well-being. It is correlated with more positive emotions, and more environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, meaning and purpose, engagement, and achievement.
  5. Intellectual Curiosity – Those with high scores tend to be open to new ideas, enjoy thinking deeply and complexly, and tend to reflect a lot on their experiences. It predicts autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose, and accomplishment.

The two not-so-strong predictors of well-being were Assertiveness and Creative Openness.

Interestingly the 3 traits which have no connection with well-being are Politeness, Orderliness and Volatility.

But what can you do if you are predisposed not to be happy?

Kaufman ends on a positive note. The findings highlight that there are multiple routes to well-being and also multiple personality profiles that lead to it. Well-being is not just about extraversion and emotional stability, but is impacted by a far broader array of personality traits than previously recognised. We can use this and translate this into our well-being programmes with our people in the workplace.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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