The 5 Personality Traits That Make for a Better Life

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Photo: Constance Bannister Corp/Getty Images

There are many paths to a good life. Some are just more rigorously studied than others.

Across many years — and many peer-reviewed papers — psychology researchers have time and again identified two personality traits that tend to correlate with greater well-being: One is extroversion — as in, the more extroverted you are, the more likely you are to be happy and satisfied with your life. The other is neuroticism, though, perhaps not surprisingly, for this trait the relationship works the other way: The lower your score in neuroticism, the higher your overall well-being tends to be. These findings are based in what’s known as the Big Five, a widely used model for studying and understanding five major dimensions of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (For more on that — and to get an idea of your own personality — you can test yourself here, in this quiz put together by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu for Science of Us in December.)

But people are complicated, perhaps more complicated than these five aspects of personality can adequately represent. An alternative model of personality splits each of those five aspects into two, and a compelling new paper examines these ten traits to gain a more nuanced portrait of the “personal paths to well-being,” as study co-author Scott Barry Kaufman phrased it in a recent column for Scientific American. (The paper itself was published late last year in the Journal of Personality, and Jessie Sun was the lead author.) Five of those traits, Kaufman writes, were “broadly related to well-being,” meaning that if “you score high in ANY of these 5 personality aspects, you are probabilistically more likely to have high well-being across multiple aspects of your life.”

Put another way, you don’t have to be all five of these things. But you’ll probably be more satisfied with your life if you are at least one of them.

Those five traits are:

Enthusiasm: This is a trait defined by such phrases as “has a lot of fun” and “laughs a lot,” and so it is not surprising that the human golden retrievers who score high in enthusiasm would also report leading more enjoyable lives. This aspect of personality falls under extroversion, and as such, it also has to do with how you relate to others: enthusiastic people tend to make friends easily, and they warm up quickly to others. They also tend to get carried away by their excitement.

Low withdrawal: This is rather inelegantly named, as it’s primarily defined by what it isn’t. Withdrawal is an aspect of neuroticism, and people who are high in this trait have an uneasy relationship with themselves — they are easily embarrassed, easily overwhelmed, and easily discouraged. A low score in this trait makes for a better life (which, of course, makes a lot of sense).

Industriousness: Here’s where this new paper starts getting interesting, particularly for those of us who find ourselves drawn to the life-hacker-y corners of the internet. According to this paper, the getting-shit-done personality also tends to be linked to greater well-being. Industriousness is a side of conscientiousness, and it’s marked by a tendency toward planning ahead, working hard, and finishing what you start, without wasting time or getting distracted in the process. Leave me to my lists; I am happiest with them.

Compassion: This is an aspect of agreeableness, and it describes the sort of person who is interested in other people’s lives and problems, and who likes to do little acts of kindness for loved ones and strangers alike. An interest in others’ well-being seems to spell good things for your own. Who knew?

Intellectual curiosity: This is a trait defined by a love of complex problems, difficult books, and meandering philosophical conversations. People with intellectual curiosity — a facet of openness in the original Big Five — are quick learners and thinkers, with rich vocabularies and the capacity to handle high volumes of information at once. Curiosity about the world around you turns out to predict your happiness within it.

On the other hand, Kaufman and his co-authors identified three aspects of personality that didn’t seem to impact well-being one way or another: Well-being does not seem to depend much on whether or not you are particularly polite or tidy, a finding that should be heartening for blunt, messy people everywhere. The third trait that was not linked to well-being was volatility, another aspect of neuroticism; it means moodiness, essentially. Kaufman explains:

Interestingly, once we took into account withdrawal … volatility was not predictive of any any measure of well-being. Therefore, if you tend to be a really moody, impulsive person, as long as that doesn’t also make you anxious and fearful, then you are not lowering your probabilities of having higher well-being!

As you might’ve surmised from that exclamation point, Kaufman is excited about these “optimistic” new findings, though he acknowledges this may mostly be his enthusiasm talking.

The 5 Personality Traits That Make for a Better Life