David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

How much of our happiness is actually down to personality or the situation we find ourselves in? The research evidence.

How much of our happiness is actually down to personality or the situation we find ourselves in? The research evidence.

In my last blog I shared some research showing that people tend to think about a third of their happiness is equally distributed between

  • Personality
  • Context or the situation they find themselves in at any time or
  • Own actions. What are called voluntary or intentional actions that help to up-regulate their own emotions

These are, however, perceptions and here I'm going to look at whether they are borne out by research.

One of the largest studies ever undertaken on human happiness found that just under half of all human happiness is determined by our own actions. This is by far and away the largest factor in our happiness and the good news is we can control it. Not only can we control our own actions in a way that can make us happy, but we can learn to get better at doing this. This is in essence the foundation of emotion regulation; using tools and techniques which can change our emotions at will.

So what about our personality?

The research about personality and happiness is pretty inconclusive, however one study published in 2012 found no correlation whatsoever between happiness or life satisfaction and personality and a large scale study of 16,367 Australian residents just published this year looked at the links between personality and happiness. The researchers concluded that there is no direct connection between personality and happiness as such. Rather that as a person matures they often learn to get better at regulating their emotions and this starts to have an impact on their personality which then reinforces the emotion regulation techniques they are using.

This works well if the individual learns healthy emotion regulation techniques, however if the individual gets into unhealthy emotion regulation like using alcohol, drugs, food and addictions etc. this is also likely to affect their personality which in turn reinforces those habits.

So it would appear our personality has little if any influence on our ability to be happy. When you think about it this makes sense. Think about the difference between introverts and extroverts for example. It is estimated that extroverts make up somewhere between 50 - 74 percent of the population in the west. Extroverts tend to get their energy from being with others and introverts get their energy from being on their own. Different things make these two types of people happy. Happiness for an introvert might just be a night in with a good book and extroverts are often happy at a party or social gathering. So it is hardly surprising that there is no direct correlation or cause of happiness in our personalities. It is more what we do with those personalities - the actions we take.

What about the context or situations we find ourselves in?

How much are the situations we find ourselves in are responsible for our happiness?

Clearly there are very severe situation which can impact an individual's happiness significantly like grief, being kidnapped or severely injured. However what we find here is that different people respond differently to these situations. For example a friend of mine was shot and almost killed whilst he was in the army. At no stage did he suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression or any similar disorder. In fact he is one of the happiest, most upbeat people I know. The control room radio operator who heard the incident, however, had to leave his job as a result of PTSD from that incident.

In various studies the context or situation has a much smaller impact on our happiness than we might at first expect. Some studies even suggest that like personality, context or situation has no significant impact on happiness on its own. Rather it is the meaning we make of, or impose on that situation. So again we find that context or situation plays a very small role in our happiness, even given the studies that do find some situational impact on happiness, at most they estimate that it contributes to less than 5% of the factors which do contribute significantly to our happiness.


So now we have a chart that probably looks more like this:

What actually makes us happy

As opposed to what people think makes us happy:

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 13.23.22





Argyle, M., & Martin, M. (1991). The psychological causes of happiness. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 77–100). Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.
Aspinwall, L. G. (1998). Rethinking the role of positive affect in self-regulation. Motivation and Emotion, 22, 1–32.
Aspinwall, L. G., & Brunhart, S. M. (1996). Distinguishing optimism fromdenial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats.Personalityand Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 993–1003.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005) The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?Psychological Bulletin 2005, Vol. 131, No. 6, 803–855
Berscheid, E. (2003). The human's greatest strength: Other humans. In L. G. Aspinwall & U. M. Staudinger (Eds.), A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology (pp. 37–47). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). Attention and self-regulation: A control-theory approach to human behaviour. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1990). Origins and functions of positive and negative affect: A control-process view. Psychological Review, 97, 19–35.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self regulation of behaviour. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and self- regulation. In E. C. Chang (Ed.), Optimism and pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice (pp. 31–51). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Costa, P.T.,Jr. & McCrae, R.R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Denny, K.G., & Steiner, H. (2009) External and Internal Factors Influencing Happiness in Elite Collegiate Athletes. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development Volume 40, Issue 1 , pp 55-72

Diener, E. (1994). Assessing subjective well-being: Progress and opportunities. Social Indicators Research, 31, 103–157.
Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). Will money increase subjective well-being? Social Indicators Research, 57, 119–169.
Diener, E., Colvin, C. R., Pavot, W. G., & Allman, A. (1991). The psychic costs of intense positive affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61,
Diener, E., & Fujita, F. (1995). Resources, personal strivings, and subjective well-being: A nomothetic and idiographic approach. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 926–935.
Diener, E., Gohm, C. L., Suh, E., & Oishi, S. (2000). Similarity of the relations between marital status and subjective well-being across cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 31,

Larsen, R. J., & Ketelaar, T. (1991). Personality and susceptibility to positive and negative emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 61, 132–140419–436
Lucas, R. E., & Diener, E. (2003). The happy worker: Hypotheses about the role of positive affect in worker productivity. In M. Burrick & A. M. Ryan (Eds.),
Personality and work (pp. 30–59). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73,
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9,

Hutchinson, G.T. (1998) Irrational Beliefs and Behavioral Misregulation in the Role of Alcohol Abuse Among College Students. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. Volume 16, Issue 1 , pp 61-74

Morgan, M. et al (2014) Redefining Happiness: Is the Happiness Pie Literature Missing Some Slices? http://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=foci Research oster session.

Pinquart, M., & Sorensen, S. (2000). Influences of socioeconomic status, social network, and competence on subjective well-being in later life: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15, 187–224
Pressman, S. D., & Cohen, S. (2005). Does positive affect influence health? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 925–971
Salovey, P., & Rosenhan, D. L. (1989). Mood states and prosocial behavior. In H. Wagner & A. Manstead (Eds.), Handbook of social psycho-physiology
(pp. 371–391). Chichester, England: Wiley

Soto, C.J. (2014) Is Happiness Good for Your Personality? Concurrent and Prospective Relations of the Big Five With Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Personality. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12081

TRóGOLO, M., MEDRANO, L.. Personality traits, difficulties in emotion regulation and academic satisfaction in a sample of argentine college students. International Journal of Psychological Research, North America, 5, dec. 2012

Thoresen, C. J., Kaplan, S. A., Barsky, A. P., Warren, C. R., & de Chermont, K. (2003). The affective underpinnings of job perceptions and attitudes: A meta-analytic review and integration. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 914–945
Verkley, H., & Stolk, J. (1989). Does happiness lead into idleness? In R. Veenhoven (Ed.), How harmful is happiness? (pp. 79–93). Rotterdam, Amsterdam: University of Rotterdam.
Wilson, W. (1967). Correlates of avowed happiness. Psychological Bulletin, 67,294–306

Rate this blog entry:
This weeks Emotional Resilience Podcast. Episode N...
What makes us happy?

Related Posts