Study Finds 2 Personality Traits Predict Well-Being — But Don’t Worry if You Don’t Have Them
Some predictors of well-being are within your control.
Who are the people most likely to experience well-being, and what can we do to be like them?
A sense of well-being is considered the pinnacle of personal wellness, though it’s difficult to define. It’s sometimes described as the combination of feeling good and functioning well. But psychologist Justine Gatt tells me, well-being’s value is “often understated.” Well-being goes beyond feeling good: It is linked to feeling physically healthy, longevity, and increased creativity.
Mental well-being consists of two key components, Gatt explains. First, there is hedonic well-being, also known as subjective well-being. This type of contentment includes feelings of life satisfaction and happiness. There’s also eudaimonic well-being, also known as psychological well-being. This state is connected to feeling a sense of purpose and autonomy.
When we experience high levels of well-being, we are “in a state of optimal mental functioning,” says Gatt. So how can we get more well-being in our lives? The answer may lie in cultivating certain lifestyle choices and personality traits.
In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Gatt and her colleagues examine predictors of well-being to try and explain why some people are more likely to experience well-being than others. Their work could help pinpoint the factors you can control to boost your mental well-being.
What factors influence our well-being?
The purpose of Gatt’s study was to evaluate the “relative predictive value” of factors that influence differences in well-being between people, along with changes in well-being over the course of a year.
The team surveyed 1,017 healthy adults in the TWIN-E study, a large mental health research project involving twins living in Australia. After an initial survey, the participants in Gatt’s study were surveyed again one year later. They also underwent a series of tests to get insight into their health and lifestyle factors and a personality evaluation. The participants were also asked about recent life events — the good and bad — and about their relationship with work.
While some of the factors that influence well-being are unpredictable — life events, for example — others, like lifestyle choices, we do have some control over.
The scientists subsequently found that predictors of well-being relative to other people — in other words, what makes one person more likely to experience well-being compared to another — weren’t necessarily the same predictors of an individual’s well-being change over time.
This finding surprised the team and suggests “we need to consider both sets of variables when developing well-being programs or interventions,” says Gatt.
For example, the study suggests people who use cognitive reappraisal — an emotion regulation strategy — were more likely to experience well-being, but it was not a strong predictor of change in well-being over time. Cognitive reappraisal is when a person changes how they think about a situation: An anger-prone person could interpret an ambiguous situation negatively, but if they use cognitive reappraisal, they might realize that the situation isn’t as bad as they thought. This strategy is known to reduce anxiety and depression and increase life satisfaction.
Can personality affect well-being?
Personality traits were also found to influence differences between people more than changes in well-being over time — with some exceptions. However, the study team did find extraversion was the “strongest unique predictor of change in well-being over one year” relevant to the other variables.
Extraversion is a personality trait linked to sociability, assertiveness, and positivity. The study authors think extraversion might facilitate maintenance, or improvement, in well-being over time because extroverted people tend to have more social connections — which helps them feel less stress.
Conscientiousness also emerged as a significant predictor of both between-person differences in well-being and changes in well-being over time, although to a lesser extent than extraversion. This trait reflects the desire to be responsible, goal-directed, and productive. Previous studies also suggest conscientious people are more health conscientious, which the study team says may explain the link to well-being.
Ultimately, the more extroverted and conscientious people at the baseline (the start of the study) showed more significant increases in well-being over time.
When it came to factors that influence change in well-being over time, a few trends emerged — including the power of life events. The study suggests traumatic and work-related events (like hirings and firings) had a powerful influence. Meanwhile, an earlier study cited in this paper indicates that only events that occur in the past three months meaningfully impact one’s current well-being.
Lifestyle factors also explained differences in well-being at the one-year mark, with exercise and fruit and vegetable consumption being the strongest predictors. This jibes with previous studies suggesting a link between well-being and eating fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, “more regular exercise each week is associated with increases in well-being over time, and this is likely via known impacts of physical activity on chemicals in the brain like serotonin and beta-endorphins,” says Gatt.
These findings prove that well-being is defined by more than just feeling happy, Gatt says. Whether or not life feels meaningful can depend on several factors — with some more influential than others.