The Role of Circumstances and Personality in Determining Happiness

The Interplay of Behaviors, Circumstances, and Psychological Traits in Pursuing a Good Life.

Share

The question of what influences happiness has long been a topic of interest for psychologists, philosophers, and the general public. While some believe that one’s personality traits largely determine happiness, recent research suggests that objective circumstances and behaviors may have an equally important role in shaping happiness.

According to a recent study by Cornell psychology researchers, objective circumstances and behaviors such as wealth and health have as much influence on happiness as subjective psychological traits.

The study found that happiness surveys overstate the importance of psychological characteristics because they are measured similarly, whereas asking someone how they’re doing enables a fairer comparison. In one large study, personality’s advantage relative to circumstances and behaviors disappeared in written responses to an open-ended question.

The study discusses the findings of three studies conducted from 2004 to 2016 in the national Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) project. Participants were asked an open-ended question, “What do you do to make life go well?” to evaluate the relative importance of psychological traits and circumstances in predicting self-reported subjective well-being. The results suggest that psychological traits, when collected through self-ratings, predict personal reports of well-being so strongly because of a measurement advantage. At the same time, circumstances matter just as much when assessed using a fairer comparison. 

The study used automated zero-shot classification to score statements about well-being without training on existing survey measures and evaluated this scoring through subsequent hand-labeling. The article highlights the importance of an open-ended measure as an indicator of well-being and wellness across individuals. It uses objective health indicators as the bases of comparison.

William Hobbs, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Human Ecology and of government in the College of Arts and Sciences, said, “If we look at the research, it suggests that people are just happier because they have a happy personality, Our study suggests that’s not the case, that there are many drivers of happiness. For some, it might have to do with personality. For others saving money, exercising, or spending time with family and friends.”

Hobbs and Ong used a large language model, validated by research assistants and sentiment analysis software, to assess whether respondents reflected thriving, struggling, or suffering. The MIDUS study provided information about respondents’ income, education, social connectedness, health behaviors, medical history, and current health indicators

The researchers found that the measures of circumstances and psychological traits were equally correlated with how happy people said they were. While closed-ended questions are crucial, the open-ended approach evaluated by Hobbs and Ong is a promising addition to the well-being and wellness studies repertoire.

Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence make it possible to ask people if they are happy in different ways and still have replicable ways of scoring responses. The researchers concluded that the best way to see whether someone is doing well is to ask them.

Hobbs is the lead author of “For Living Well, Behaviors and Circumstances Matter Just as Much as Psychological Traits,” published March 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Anthony Ong, professor of psychology in the College of Human Ecology and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell University, is a co-author.

The study used a large language model to score over 1,000 responses from the MIDUS study to investigate the association between measures of circumstances and psychological traits with self-reported happiness.

The responses were scored using validated sentiment analysis software and research assistants. The open-ended approach was evaluated to be a promising addition to the well-being and wellness studies repertoire as it provides a view of well-being from the perspective of survey respondents. 

The study concluded that circumstances and psychological traits have a roughly equal correlation with self-reported happiness. The researchers suggest that advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence can enable fairer comparisons between personality and circumstances than existing closed-ended measures.

The study suggests that behaviors and circumstances correlate similarly with self-reported happiness as psychological traits. An open-ended approach to studying well-being is also a promising addition to traditional closed-ended questions. This study emphasizes the importance of considering a broad range of factors, including behaviors and circumstances, when studying well-being and suggests that machine learning and artificial intelligence can help provide fairer comparisons between personality and events.

Hobbs said advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence now make it possible to ask people if they are happy in different ways and still have replicable ways of scoring responses. He said language models introduce their own biases, but they probably aren’t multiple-choice survey response biases. So they enable fairer comparisons between personality and circumstances than existing closed-ended measures.

The researchers concluded, “Perhaps the best way to see whether someone is doing well is to ask them.”

The study concludes that behaviors and circumstances have a similar correlation with self-reported happiness as psychological traits. This indicates that factors such as income, education, social connectedness, and health behaviors are equally crucial to personality regarding well-being. The researchers suggest that an open-ended approach to studying well-being can complement traditional closed-ended questions and that advances in machine learning can provide fairer comparisons between personality and circumstances. Overall, the study highlights the importance of considering a broad range of factors when studying well-being.

Journal Reference:

  1. Hobbs, W. R., et al. For living well, behaviors and circumstances matter just as much as psychological traits. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2212867120

Newsletter

See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.

Trending