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Personality found surprisingly changeable, with key implications for happiness

March 5, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Manchester
and World Science staff

Peo­ple’s per­son­al­i­ties can change con­sid­erably over time, say sci­en­tists—and these al­tera­t­ions can lead to ma­jor im­prove­ments in life sat­is­fac­tion.

Psy­chol­o­gists, from the Uni­vers­ity of Man­ches­ter and Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence in the U.K. found that small pos­i­tive per­son­al­ity changes may lead to great­er in­creases in hap­pi­ness than earn­ing more mon­ey, mar­ry­ing, or gain­ing em­ploy­ment. The re­search­ers said the study should be of in­ter­est to Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Da­vid Cam­er­on, who has sug­gested that a meas­ure of the na­t­ion’s “hap­pi­ness” would be a bet­ter guide to its overall per­for­mance than the more usu­al in­di­ca­tor, Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct.

“We found that our per­son­al­i­ties can and do change over time – some­thing that was con­sid­ered im­prob­a­ble,” said psy­chol­o­gist Chris Boyce of the Uni­vers­ity of Man­ches­ter. “These per­son­al­ity changes are strongly re­lat­ed to changes in our well­be­ing,” he added. “Com­pared with ex­ter­nal fac­tors, such as a pay rise, get­ting mar­ried or find­ing em­ploy­ment, per­son­al­ity change is just as likely and con­tri­butes much more to im­prove­ments in our per­son­al well­be­ing.”

The find­ings are pub­lished in the jour­nal So­cial In­di­ca­tors Re­search.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have found that per­son­al­ity ac­counts for up to 35 per­cent of in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in life sat­is­fac­tion, com­pared to just 4 per­cent for in­come, 4 per­cent for em­ploy­ment sta­tus and be­tween 1 per­cent and 4 per­cent for mar­i­tal sta­tus. But be­cause it was thought our per­son­al­i­ties were fixed, poli­cies to im­prove well­be­ing have fo­cused on these ex­ter­nal fac­tors.

“Our re­search sug­gests that go­vernments could meas­ure 'na­t­ional per­son­al­ity'—for ex­am­ple, wheth­er the popula­t­ion is be­com­ing more extro­verted, con­sci­en­tious, open to ex­pe­ri­ence, and agree­a­ble, and how this links to na­t­ional events,” Boyce said. “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.”

Boyce, with Man­ches­ter col­league Al­ex Wood and the Lon­don School’s Nick Powd­thavee, 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 us­ing an es­tab­lished per­son­al­ity ques­tion­naire as­sess­ing five broad ar­eas: openness to ex­pe­ri­ences, con­sci­en­tiousness, extro­version, agree­a­bleness and neu­rot­i­cism. The re­search­ers then as­sessed how much per­son­al­ity changed and how these changes re­lat­ed to life sat­is­fac­tion in com­par­i­son to ex­ter­nal fac­tors, such as changes to in­come, changes to em­ploy­ment and changes to mar­i­tal sta­tus. They found that per­son­al­ity changes at least as much as these ex­ter­nal fac­tors and pre­dicted about twice as much of changes to life sat­is­fac­tion over the study pe­ri­od.

“The fo­cus of many well­be­ing stud­ies in eco­nom­ics is on how changes to our cir­cum­stances, such as a high­er in­come, get­ting mar­ried or a dif­fer­ent job might in­flu­ence our well­be­ing. The in­flu­ence of our per­son­al­ity is of­ten ig­nored in these types of stud­ies in the be­lief that our per­son­al­ity can’t or does­n’t change. We show that per­son­al­ity can and does change and, not only is it more likely to change than an in­come in­crease, it con­tri­butes much more to changes in our well­be­ing,” Boyce said.

“Our re­search sug­gests that by fo­cus­ing on who we are and how we re­late to the world around us has the po­ten­tial to un­lock vast im­prove­ments in our well­be­ing.”


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People’s personalities can change considerably over time, say scientists—and these alterations can lead to substantial improvements in life satisfaction. Psychologists, from the University of Manchester and London School of Economics and Political Science in the U.K. found that small positive personality changes may lead to greater increases in happiness than earning more money, marrying, or gaining employment. The researchers said the study should be of interest to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has suggested that a measure of the nation’s “happiness” would be a better guide to its overall performance than the more usual indicator, Gross Domestic Product. “We found that our personalities can and do change over time – something that was considered improbable until now,” said psychologist Chris Boyce of the University of Manchester. “These personality changes are strongly related to changes in our wellbeing,” he added. “Compared with external factors, such as a pay rise, getting married or finding employment, personality change is just as likely and contributes much more to improvements in our personal wellbeing.” The findings are published in the journal Social Indicators Research. Previous studies have found that personality accounts for up to 35% of individual differences in life satisfaction, compared to just 4% for income, 4% for employment status and between 1% and 4% for marital status. But because it was thought our personalities were fixed, policies to improve wellbeing have focused on these external factors. “Our research suggests that governments could measure “national personality”—for example, whether the population is becoming more extroverted, conscientious, open to experience, and agreeable, and how this links to national events,” Boyce said. “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.” Boyce, with Manchester colleague Alex Wood and the London School’s Nick Powdthavee, 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 using an established personality questionnaire assessing five broad areas: openness to experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The researchers then assessed how much personality changed and how these changes related to life satisfaction in comparison to external factors, such as changes to income, changes to employment and changes to marital status. They found that personality changes at least as much as these external factors and predicted about twice as much of changes to life satisfaction over the study period. “The focus of many wellbeing studies in economics is on how changes to our circumstances, such as a higher income, getting married or a different job might influence our wellbeing. The influence of our personality is often ignored in these types of studies in the belief that our personality can’t or doesn’t change. We show that personality can and does change and, not only is it more likely to change than an income increase, it contributes much more to changes in our wellbeing,” Boyce said. “Our research suggests that by focusing on who we are and how we relate to the world around us has the potential to unlock vast improvements in our wellbeing.”