Why are some People Happier than Others? w/Richard Lucas
Nexum bi-weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in change management.
Hosted by Morten Kamp Andersen
Nexum bi-weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in change management.
Hosted by Morten Kamp Andersen
You may know that personality, to some degree, is heritable. In fact, 50-60% of your personality comes down to your genetic makeup. But did you also know that your level of happiness too is heritable, stable and hard to change? Some days, you may feel happier than others, yet your base-level of happiness is reasonably fixed. And it is connected to your personality traits. But what can we do to change our level of happiness?
In this episode of What Monkeys Do, I have invited Richard Lucas to talk about personality, happiness and why some people are happier than others. Richard is a leading professor in personality psychology and is internationally recognized for his research on happiness and well-being. Listen along to find out what you can do to increase your happiness.
#1 Your level of happiness is linked with your personality. Although it may change slightly from day to day, our personality as a whole is quite stable over time. The most tested and valid way to measure personality is the big five: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. And your score on those big five correlates with your level of happiness. Especially extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism are important measures in this regard.
#2 Your level of happiness is rather heritable. About 50% of our personality is genetic. We know this from extensive twin studies where identical twins separated at birth are compared. I was not surprised that our level of personality was heritable. However, I was very surprised to learn that our level of happiness too was highly heritable. About 40-50% of our level of happiness is genetic.
#3 You can influence your happiness. Although Richard is not suggesting that it's easy to change your level of happiness, he does suggest three things: 1) therapy does work, 2) manage your social relations and 3) engage in meaningful activities.
Richard has studied personality and happiness for many years, and he is right; We need to know more about what makes us happy. Listen to the full episode on your preferred platform to get the full picture.
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If you want to know more about change and how to make a change stick, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google or Stitcher or read more on our website: www.nexum.eu
people, happiness, personality, neuroticism, life, studies, personality traits, happy, conscientiousness, big, correlation, change, correlate, introverts, measure, bit, extroverts, score, evidence, terms
Morten Andersen, Richard Lucas
Morten Andersen 00:05
Hello, and welcome to What Monkeys Do. My name is Morten Kamp Andersen. And this is a podcast about what it takes to make a change and make it stick. I've never been very happy, not for long periods at a time, at least, of course, I've had my highs, both of my children, marriage, promotions, etc. But in everyday, I don't have a very high level of happiness. At least that's not what I think. Because I don't really know how other people feel, what their level of happiness or well being is. So it's hard to compare. But I believe that I have a lower level of happiness compared to many people. And some years ago, I found the reason for why that is. It's called the Hedonic Treadmill model. It's very popular, widespread theory, you might have read about it in books, such as The Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, essentially, by that theory, we all have an individual level of happiness that we're so to speak born with, and we can have good things happen to us and our happiness go up for a while. And we can have negative things happen to us, and we become more unhappy for a short while. But after that short, while our happiness goes back to our starting point, our individual base level, but that all points to a very bleak picture for our ability to impact our happiness, because by that model, we are born with a preset level of happiness. And there's not much we can do about that. And that does not bode well for me. But is that model true? Can we permanently increase our level of happiness? Well, let's find out in this episode of What Monkeys Do. My guest today is a professor of psychology at Michigan State University. He is internationally known for his research on happiness, and subjective well being, and the effect of life events on life satisfaction, you earned his PhD in psychology from the University of Illinois. And one of the things I do like a lot about his work other than his books is that he's also an outspoken proponent for for replicant studies, basically, conducting follow up research so we can increase the confidence that we have, in the results of the original study. And especially after the replication crisis that happened in psychology a couple of years ago, I think that we need more people like that is reading several books. I've just finished The Geat Myth of Personality, but I'll also just highlight Stability of Happiness. Welcome to you Richard Lucas,
Richard Lucas 02:34
Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Morten Andersen 02:36
I'm really looking forward to this topic, because this is something that interests me a lot. And in this episode, we'll talk about personality, we'll talk about happiness, and how they fit together. But because these two constructs are quite complicated, we'll first look at what is personality, and then what happiness is and how they affect each other. And then finally, we'll try to find out what can we, if at all, do to change our level of happiness? But before we begin, can you maybe tell us a little bit about who you are? And what is fascinating about our personality and happiness?
Richard Lucas 03:09
Yeah, sure. I do consider myself to be a personality psychologist. So that's someone you know who who focuses on this construct of personality. And what I try to do with that is often to focus on how much of personality we can change what might be causing changes in personality, or what personality can itself cause. And then I also do link that a lot to subjective well being. So understanding how these stable characteristics that we think of as personality are related to well being. I think that my interest in it is, you know, pretty general, and pretty broad. And I think it is because of so many things that are fascinating, but personality, I think maybe the thing that stands out to me most is that we have to study it in the first place. Because you know, this is who we are as individuals. That's what personality is, it's something that is presumably the result of the thoughts that we have inside of our heads and the experiences we've had in the past. And the fact that we don't immediately have insight into that, that we don't know why we do the things that we do, we don't know how to change our personality, and that we need psychologists out there studying, you know, what it is that causes this? I think that fact is something that's it's kind of interesting to me. So, um, so I like you know, applying the scientific method, trying to understand who we are and how we can make those changes.
Morten Andersen 04:22
Great. So you mentioned personality a lot. Let's start with that. Maybe just start by telling us what, what is personality? And how do we measure personality?
Richard Lucas 04:32
That corresponds pretty well to the way that I think that we use the word and everyday language. I think the standard definition that I would use is that it's our characteristic pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. So it's really incorporates lots of things about us. It's again, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, all those things fit as personality. But it's the characteristic pattern. It's something that is a pattern that stable person exhibits that over time, and then kind of defined who that person is you. So we really look for all those things as part of what we mean by personality.
Morten Andersen 05:08
And obviously, patterns and thoughts and behavior, you would think that that's pretty fluid. So one day I act in one way or another day, I act in another, but personality is something that you say is pretty stable. So those patterns of thoughts and behaviors are pretty stable. Is that correct?
Richard Lucas 05:27
Yeah, I mean, obviously, we do change from day to day. So some days, I feel more outgoing than on other days, some days, I am more constrained in terms of how outgoing I can be. Some days, I might wake up feeling like I can work really hard and others days, I feel I feel lazy. So those things do change from day to day. But those general tendencies if we kind of look at things over time, or the averages of our behaviors, and our thoughts and our feelings, then we do find some amounts of stability for long periods of time, when in fact, we can recognize this and other people, we know that we have some friends who are you know, we can count on to be very punctual when we set up a meeting with them or to be always want to go out to a party or something like that. And it's that that pattern that we recognize, and other people that makes us choose people as friends, or as co workers, that stability that we recognize there, I think is what we typically mean when we think about a person's personality.
Morten Andersen 06:20
And and why is it important for psychology to have a construct like, say, like personality? What is what is the purpose of, of making that and and correlating that with so many things? Yeah,
Richard Lucas 06:32
I mean, so one of the things we do know about personality is it relates to important outcomes. And so again, I think that in our daily lives, we have an intuition that it does, again, we choose partners, because we think that they're going to be a nice person to live with, we choose our friends, because we think that there'll be there for us and the times when it matters, we think that those characteristics do something. There's something that we either just enjoy being with or has some benefit for us. And I think psychologists approach the personality with the same goals in mind that we know that people that have certain characteristics have different outcomes in their lives. So researchers who study the personality trait of conscientiousness, which is again, how punctual how organized, how a little bit driven, these sorts of characteristics. And we know that those are correlated, at least with outcomes, like outcomes related to health and mortality outcomes related to career success. And oftentimes, those associations between personality traits, and these consequential outcomes are as high as other things that we typically think of as being important, like intelligence or socioeconomic status. And so I think that personality psychologists want to know, what is it about people's personality that leads to these important outcomes, with the aim of like, just general understanding, but also, if people want to live healthier lives, more successful lives? Is there anything we can learn from those personality associations that can help people do that better?
Morten Andersen 07:53
Hmm. So you're talking about conscientiousness there? How do you measure personality?
Richard Lucas 07:59
Yeah, that's a good question. So personality is something that's kind of hidden, right, we have a sense that someone is conscientious and some people are more conscientious than others. But there isn't some thing that we can tap into that is this perfect indicator. So a lot of times what personal psychologists do is they ask for people's impressions of their own personality or someone else's personality. And then what we do is we try to then use that as a starting point, but then really questioning ourselves as in terms of whether or not that's a good measure or not. So I might first ask people, you know, their self reports of their personality, but then also ask their friends and family members and see to the extent to which the those those measures agree. But then we could also do behavioral measures, too, so we could actually look at what people do, are they punctual over time and use that as an indicator of how conscientious they are? Now, each one of these measures is not perfect. And so you know, that's a constant, you know, effort within personality psychology is to improve our measures to ask questions about our measures to see whether they're doing a good job.
Morten Andersen 09:01
I think when I read through literature, there is one way of measuring that seems to be the one that academia used by far the most, which is the Big Five. So that has a long history back from hands, I think, and all the way up to now. But that seems to be the gold standard for talking about personality in academia. Is that is that right?
Richard Lucas 09:22
Yeah. So the Big Five, I think, is the standard way that we would conceptualize personnel. If we wanted a broad measure of personality, one that encompasses a lot of the different ways people differ from one another, the Big Five would would be probably the most popular way of doing that right now.
Morten Andersen 09:39
Yeah. And it's self reporting. So I get a questionnaire and I've filled that out and then I get my scores and the Big Five. And I just think that on some days, I probably see myself as a little bit more outgoing and maybe sort of achieving more but then I have other days when, you know, it's raining outside and I don't really feel so good about myself. So I might score myself. Do differently. But on the other hand, you also say that personalities are very stable. So basically, I report my own personality, and I feel a little bit different about myself from day to day. But on the other hand, it's a stable thing. How does that go hand in hand?
Richard Lucas 10:14
What you're pointing out is exactly right, is that I can take a questionnaire today. And it might be different than the way that I take it tomorrow. And so I think that, personally, psychologists are generally pretty careful about interpreting the precision with which, you know, we get these measures. And and we might know that there is some error there. So what we would typically find is it Yes, your reports on this personality measure might change from day to day, but they're within a general range, and that range is relatively consistent, and your range might be different than my range. And so we wouldn't necessarily say, okay, you are a 123 out of 140. On this tray, we would get a general sense about what your trait level is. And that's what we would think of as your personality score. And those that range is generally pretty stable.
Morten Andersen 11:02
Okay. I think many of our listeners may know others; MBTI, Myers Briggs is a very well known outside of academia, it's actually probably the most used way of talking about personality, either for self development, or in companies when you want to either select employees or you want to develop employees. So Myers Briggs is is wildly used. I know, you critique MBTI. And what do you think is the issue with with that particular way of looking at personality?
Richard Lucas 11:32
Yeah, so it is definitely widely used. I think a lot of people know what scores they would get from The MBTI. And, and I think that there are some things that are valuable about it. I think that within academic psychology, we typically don't use it for a couple of reasons. One is that the way that it's scored, or the way that it's typically scored, it isn't always scored this way. But one of the ways that it is typically scored is to put people into categories. So you're one category or you're another, and it doesn't really distinguish among people within those categories. And what we've learned from research within personality psychology is, individual differences don't generally work in that categorical way. Usually, there's a distribution of scores. So like with extraversion, it isn't the case that there's a group of people who are clearly extroverts and a group of people who are clearly introvert, and you're one or the other. Instead, there's generally a distribution and most people are really actually in the middle of the distribution on extraversion. And then there are some people that are far out in that distribution that we think of as extroverts and some people who are far out and on the other end, and we think of them as introverts, but again, most people are in the middle. And so with the underlying idea of The MBTI, it's more putting people in those boxes, which isn't, you know, the way that the personality really works. The other thing, I think, is that it doesn't have quite as much of this, this long, empirical history linking this to like some of the models like the Big Five does, so it wasn't necessarily as empirically based, even if they do research on the validity of the measure now, or the utility of the measure now. So I think that kind of having that long history of empirical research behind it makes us believe that what you know, the big five might be capturing might be a little bit more robust, a little bit, tap into things that we that we know more about than The MBTI does. The items on The MBTI are probably are often similar to the things that we would have, it's just the way that you combine those and score them that might not be exactly the way that we would categorize people's personality using these well established models.
Morten Andersen 13:33
So for instance, introversion and extraversion is the same on both MBTI and Big Five. But the difference is that with MBTI, either you are introvert or your extrovert, whereas with the big five, you are somewhere on the scale. And I can definitely see that if you are a little bit introverted, you're basically grouped together with a person who's very introverted. And if you are little bit extroverted, you are grouped together with somebody who's very extroverted. Whereas you probably have more in common with a person who's a little bit introverted, rather than the extreme extroverted. So that's, that's, I guess, it's the difference.
Richard Lucas 14:07
Yeah. And that also goes back to your question about, you know, whether today I feel I answered the question a little bit differently than I do tomorrow. If we're putting you on this continuum, then those little differences don't make that much of a difference in terms of how we interpret your personality. But a slight difference in the way that you respond to that skill could completely change whether you're categorized as an extrovert or an introvert if we're only going based on this categorical approach. So there's, there's more of a chance that we get that category wrong, as opposed to just slightly off when we use some sort of dimensional scoring.
Morten Andersen 14:37
So obviously, a really interesting question about personality is our topic is where do we get it from? Well, where did it come? And so how much of of our personality do I get from my parents I is inherent, and how much is coming from my upbringing, and how much can I influence myself? Do we know anything about that?
Richard Lucas 14:55
Yeah, so I mean, that's a definitely a really big question within personality Psychology is Where is it coming from? You know, and so we do have things like twin studies where we look at people, especially twins who might have been separated at birth, and then we measure their personality later on in adulthood and say how similar are twins who grew up in different households to one another in terms of the personality. And, you know, one of the things that we know that many, many characteristics, most characteristics, most individual differences do show a lot of similarity across those twins, even if they're separated at birth, which suggests that something about their genes are responsible for the personality traits that they have. Now, we don't know exactly what that is. So the way that genes lead to personality could be through things that people elicit from their environment, could be through the way that they interpret things in their environment, or it could be more direct in terms of, you know, there might be something that directly influences the emotions that people experience on a typical basis. So there does seem to be some heritability there. When we look for, you know, common experiences that people have that then lead to the personality traits that they have later on, it's a little bit harder to find systematic differences. In for instance, the childhood upbringing of people who are extroverts versus introverts are between those who are conscientious and those who are not. So I think that there's good evidence that something about our upbringing or environment helps influence the personality traits that we have, but narrowing down and really precisely precisely identifying what those things are, has been difficult for us. So there isn't something that I can point to, as this critical thing that's happened to us the causes of personality traits.
Morten Andersen 16:34
I think those twin festivals that there are where you basically were basically twins and and twins separated at birth meet and then are being exposed to all sorts of questions every year are really interesting. And there are definitely some things we it's probably the most valid way of finding out how much of things are genetic and what his environment and some things seems to be very high like height, an eye color seem to be very much but down to our genes, which particular sports interest, we have very little, I seem to have read somewhere that it's something around 60% for many of our personality traits that are down to genetics, which means that there is still a 40%, which is not, but we don't really know what that 40% is, because we don't have systematic data for that. Is that correct?
Richard Lucas 17:26
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it actually is some of the estimates might even be a little bit lower than that. 50%, or around there. And yeah, so we don't know exactly what those causes are in terms of or what the factors in that 40 to 50% are. But again, we also don't know of the 50% that's heritable. You know, I think that one of the dangers, I think, interpretation of those findings is that because it's heritable, it means that it's not changeable means that there isn't something about the environment that's playing into those can be the fact that what we have, you know, built into us elicits reaction, you know, it makes us react to the environment in a certain way. And if we could figure out what that process was, even that heritable part might be changeable if we knew more about how those processes were working.
Morten Andersen 18:10
Okay, so that leads me to the stability of our personality. Do we know a little bit about how stable our personality is? So if I had my big five taken when I was 15, when I was 25, 35, and so on? how stable would that be over time? Yeah, so
Richard Lucas 18:28
that's one of the things we do know a lot about. Now, there's a lot of big studies that have been conducted either in huge samples over reasonably long periods of time, you know, 10-20 years, or smaller samples that have been conducted for even longer periods of time. So 50-60 years. And so we do know that there is quite a bit of stability in personality traits. It does change over time. So there are periods of the life where stability is higher than others. So when you go through adolescence, there's more room for change. stability is lower from 15 to 25, than it is from 35 to 45. But there is stability across all those those different periods of life. And once we get to middle age, then stability coefficients get really high. So there's still some change going on. But but there is quite a bit of stability at that point.
Morten Andersen 19:13
And I think neuroticism, which is one of the big five, that tends to decrease over age, is that correct? So yeah, if you do pass the 35, that's actually one of the big five that do decrease.
Richard Lucas 19:26
So we know a little bit about mean level changes as well. And so there's there are some good things that happened. So there's something called the maturity principle that people kind of as they get older, they kind of change in ways that make them seem more mature. So conscientiousness seems to increase, agreeableness sometimes increases, neuroticism tends tend to decrease over time. And so there are some changes that typically happen not with everybody, but on average, that are, you know, positive changes.
Morten Andersen 19:54
Yes. So and just to maybe recap for for people that don't know the big five, so the five Dimensions: one is extraversion which you can score higher low one. So I guess when you score low, you, you are an introvert. And neuroticism is another one, which is generally considered a poor one to score high on, we'll get to that a little bit later maybe neuroticism is essentially how, how do you see things in a positive or negative way? Would that be correct?
Richard Lucas 20:21
Yeah emotionality and that sort of thing. Yep.
Morten Andersen 20:24
openness, which is the dimension of how open you are to ideas, thoughts and and new experiences. agreeableness is how it could you say friendly, maybe friendliness and warmth?
Richard Lucas 20:38
Yeah, characteristics like that.
Morten Andersen 20:40
And the last one was a constant we get conscientiousness conscientiousness? And that one is how do you explain that one?
Richard Lucas 20:48
Kind of how there's there's different facets to all these. But so how orderly you are, how hard working you are, some of these characteristics often fall with the under conscientiousness?
Morten Andersen 20:57
Yes, okay. we correlate them with many different outcomes. So for instance, people who tend to get a higher pay rise than others, the ones who score lower on agreeableness, and, and maybe higher on conscientiousness, as well. So basically, if you if you have the courage to go into your manager's office and say, I demand this pay rise, because I'm worth that, then you're more likely to get it. And people who score lower on agreeableness is more likely to do that, et cetera, et cetera. Sometimes something spectacular happens in our life, good or bad. And sometimes, obviously, it's the, it's those events, we would call them significant life events, they can leave a mark on us, they will definitely leave a mark on our life story, the story that we tell about our life, but do they also leave a mark on our personality?
Richard Lucas 21:47
Yeah, so that's one, then one big surprise, I think, in the literature on personality is how hard it's been to find effects of significant life events on the personality traits that people have. So there's been a lot of work on this. I mean, I will say that studies on this are hard to do. It requires having a large group of people that we follow for very long periods of time and where we regularly measure their personality. So we have enough information to know whether that personality has changed. And so I think that in total recent years, we haven't had those large studies that have allowed us to do this. Now there are more and more of those studies that have been conducted. So far, when reviews these studies to look at the effects of life events, the results have been somewhat inconsistent. So for instance, we know from adolescence to through early adulthood, and to men to middle age, conscientiousness goes up, that's the kind of the typical pattern that we see. And it goes up relatively dramatically. That's the kind of the biggest period of change that we've seen. And so a lot of personality psychologists assumed that if we would be able to take that period of growth, and look for significant life events that might actually be responsible for the changes that are occurring. So lots of people start their first job during that period of time, lots of people become parents during that period of time, lots of people get married during that period of time. And so what we try to do is use these big longitudinal studies to link those changes in conscientious as to those life events. And the results have been kind of surprisingly, not robust in terms of being able to link those in that way. So I think that we have been surprised that we haven't been able to find those associations as much as we thought we would. But we might, we also are starting to think about some of the problems or some of the challenges and methodologically that might make us not be able to find those right away. So it might be the case that you have a child. But it isn't until three or four years later that actually the effect of that builds up enough to for us to see the effect on conscientiousness. And the same with later events that happen to us. So if we lose a spouse, or if we get, you know, married some point later on in our life, the way that that affects us might be a little bit more idiosyncratic. And so it might not have an average effect, even though it's affecting some people significantly.
Morten Andersen 23:57
Okay. That was a little bit of our personality we have a personality is basically made up of the patterns of our behavior and thoughts, relatively stabled best measured through the Big Five, large part of our personality is actually something we inherit, it's a genetic, about 50% on on most of the items. And even though that our significant life events matters a lot to our identity and to our life story, it actually doesn't impact our personality as much as as we would think. And personality is interesting, because it correlates with a lot of life events or life outcomes, and one of them is happiness. So let's have a look at that. But before we do that, let's have a break. Okay, so that was personality. And the thing about personality is it's something that we cannot see, we have to ask people to get an understanding of their personality, although we can use other ways as Well, happiness is a bit the same. So we cannot, you know, just look at people and see how happy they are, we cannot measure it objectively we have to ask them. That's also why we often call it subjective well being. And happiness is one of those things that if we ask people, most people would say, that's a good thing. We want to be happy that some people might even say that's the purpose of life is to have a happy life. So let's start with what what is happiness? And how do we measure happiness or well being.
Richard Lucas 25:29
So again, I think like personality, the way that we in psychology use happiness or subjective well being is pretty consistent with I think how we would do it in a non site, when a non scientists will talk about it, I do think it's a little bit important to distinguish happiness, a couple of meanings of happiness. One is this positive emotion that you might feel in a particular moment. And I think that we have the sense that it's something like joy, or these positive feelings about something that's happening. And the reason that we sometimes distinguish the word happiness from subjective well being is because we can also think about happiness is this bigger thing that you experience in your life, where you just have this general sense that my life is a good one, that it's going well, it might not have positive emotion every minute, but I have some sort of overall evaluation of that life as being positive. And we sometimes use happiness. And that way in this broader sense. So I too use the word happiness to kind of mean that broader thing. In our writings, we try to be more precise by talking about that broader thing as being subjective well being because it might not necessarily correspond with feeling joy, every moment of your life, it might also involve satisfaction with things that might actually be challenging and difficult in our lives.
Morten Andersen 26:42
So what are some of the questions that you ask a person that he or she evaluates on?
Richard Lucas 26:49
Yeah, so I think that, again, we have different ways we can do this, there is no perfect way of measuring happiness. So sometimes it's very simple. And we'll ask them, are you satisfied with your life or on a scale from one to 10 how satisfied are you with your life as a whole, and we assume that people whose lives are going well, and who have good things in their lives will respond more positively to those items. We also have this idea that, you know, people who are who have a good life, or who have a life that they like, will experience more positive moments in that life. So we can do things like, you know, signal people with text messages a couple times a day, and ask them, How are you feeling at this moment, and then we can aggregate those over time to see whether they have more good moments in their life. And so these are some of the different ways that we assess happiness in people's lives.
Morten Andersen 27:35
And I suppose, like with personality, I mean, that could also depends on which day that you asked me to what I think my level of overall happiness is.
Richard Lucas 27:45
Yes, definitely. And so especially if we ask about emotions, and feelings, those fluctuate much more than personalities do. And so how people feel Monday of this week might be very different than how they feel on Friday of this week, how they feel in the morning might feel very different than how they feel, you know, before they go to bed. And so definitely, if we take that sampling of emotions perspective on measuring happiness, we know that there's a lot more fluctuations that go along. But even when we talk about life satisfaction, so how satisfied are you with in general, that is stable over time, but not quite as stable as personality traits?
Morten Andersen 28:18
Okay. So happiness is something that we, we are interested in, because we know that's an outcome most people would like. And I guess from a psychological point of view, we're trying to find out what factors influence the level of happiness? And what good does it bring to be happy so to speak, I can see that a lot of the studies that I've looked at in this respect, are very, it's based on correlations. And I don't really want to say the obvious correlation does not equal court causality. But it is true that it doesn't. So I guess, I know that people who are happy they generally also, most of them might be married, or they might be living in safe countries, or they may have some specific coping strategies that they're working well with some of the things that we see from a lot of the research, but how much do we know whether, you know, they are happy because they in a good marriage? Or because they you know, in a marriage, because they're which way does the arrow points so to speak?
Richard Lucas 29:13
Right? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that this is a really important issue that, again, we're struggling with, as researchers who study these topics. And I think that people who are reading about it, you know, in popular press, I think, need to be careful about these sorts of things. Because we do we want to look at this evidence, and we want to interpret it causally because we want to know what we can do to change our happiness or a lot of people do. And I think that the way that I perceive the field is that we are at a stage where we've kind of gone through, we've used as much information as we can to get a really good descriptive sense of what the happy person looks like. And so it is often very correlational. It has advantages over some other areas in psychology is that we have often representative samples of populations, where we can get pretty good information about what are the things that correlate with well being but it is Through that we are left with correlational data. And we don't necessarily know what causes it. So I think that at this point where we have a pretty good descriptive sense of what that looks like, and I think people are developing theories that they can then test with additional evidence for what the causal factors are there, I will say that it's a tricky area, because it possibly is the case that there are causal factors that are going to be difficult to study experimentally. So if it is the case that you know, your FCS, or socioeconomic status has a major impact means your causal impact on your happiness, it's going to be hard for us to use some of the typical methods that we would have for establishing causality to establish the importance of that factor.
Morten Andersen 30:40
But what what things do we know that at least correlates highly with happiness?
Richard Lucas 30:45
Yeah, I mean, so some of the ones that people don't like, or are one of the ones is that I do think that income correlates with happiness. You know, there's debates right now about the size of that effect, there was just a study that got a lot of attention that just came out, showing that even among wealthy people that having more money is correlated with with more happiness. Again, the debates are about whether it's a big effect or a small effect, but it is there, I think it's pretty consistent that people who have higher incomes and more wealth, or happier than people who are lower, I think that there's a number of health characteristics that we can point to on disability status, these sorts of things that I think are associated with lower levels of well being. And then I think beyond that, I think that I mean, personality we do, you know, that's also a big predictor of happiness. And then other things like, you know, people often point to social relationships as being important for happiness as well. And again, with all of those the point that you made that we don't know necessarily whether they're causal factors or outcomes, or the result of some other variable that's causing both of these, something that we always have to consider.
Morten Andersen 31:49
Okay, some of my relevant big five factors is that I am an introvert, I score very high on neuroticism, and I score low on agreeableness. I mentioned them because I think they are relevant here. With that information, can you say something about a group of 1000? Mortens; how they would be likely to feel regarding happiness?
Richard Lucas 32:10
Right, yeah. So I mean, it is the case that all three of those would be, we'd be predispose you to I mean, there would be associated with lower levels of happiness. And so those are some of the big personality traits that do seem to be correlated. So people who are high in neuroticism are generally lower and reports a subjective well being people who are agreeableness also, and extraversion, those are kind of the bigger ones there. Now, again, I think the one of the other things to keep in mind about happiness, and the distributions of happiness is that actually, most people tend to be towards the positive end of the scale. So if we do have a one to 10, or zero to 10, scale and happiness, in western countries, at least, the means relatively wealthy Western countries, at least, the means tend to be around seven or eight on those skills. And there aren't that many people that are dropping below six or five on these things. And so when we talk about some of these associations with personality traits, or even with income, no, we're talking about relatively happy or, you know, relatively more or less happy, not kind of that these factors make people depressed in their lives or things like that.
Morten Andersen 33:16
So I can, I can take comfort in that I might not be as happy as, as most but at least I'm not dropping off the scale and at a six is actually a solid six.
Richard Lucas 33:25
Morten Andersen 33:26
That's so funny. And obviously, you can also be, so if I think about my life, and how happy I am in my life, I might think in different parts of my life are different roles I have, I might think about my work. And I might have one number might think about my home, my family situation, as one number might think about my friends and hobbies and so on. So is that is that normal that people think about their overall subjective happiness as as, as having different different subcategories sub numbers or other other one some categories that account for more than others?
Richard Lucas 34:01
Yeah. It's an interesting question in terms of whether or not we kind of build up our happiness from all the different components of our lives. So you know, one model of how people make judgments about their life as a whole, as they'll look and say, okay, is my relationship good? Is my work good? Is my health good, and basically evaluate their happiness in each of those domains, and then kind of average those to say, How happy Am I on average? Now another model, though, is that that people actually are just either happy or not or, you know, they fall somewhere on this, this dimension. And then that basically shapes how they view their relationship and their job and their health. And it actually influences their perception of the different domains in their lives. And I think actually, there's probably evidence for both of those. I think that people who are happy in general might be okay with their job even objectively, it's not a good job or has some bad characteristics. But having a bad job, I also do think is probably going to be likely to have an impact on people's overall happiness. So when we look at When we try to measure those things explicitly, if I say how satisfied are you with your relationship? how satisfied are you with your job? how satisfied are you with your health? What we find is that sometimes there are stronger correlations among those ratings than we would expect, just based on the objective characteristics of those domains, suggesting again, that there is this kind of top down view of all the different areas of our lives. But there is also some evidence that if we change your job, make it better or worse, that that can also have an impact on the global judgments that you provide about your life as a whole.
Morten Andersen 35:32
Yeah, I would, I would think that the things that you attach a lot of meaning to or a big part of your identity, those parts would probably take up more of the overall part of your overall happiness. So in parts where your job is a big part of your identity, and also maybe the time that you spend, then there can almost be a one to one correlation between how happy you are with your work compared to how satisfied you are with your life in general, I suppose.
Richard Lucas 36:02
Yeah. And I think that's a really intuitive idea. And a lot of psychologists have, have thought that would be the case, too. I think it still might be when we try to investigate that explicitly. So for instance, we have a group of people and we say, how important is your job to you? And then we corrolate, we kind of look at the differences in the association between job satisfaction and life satisfaction. That importance rating doesn't really change the association as much as we would expect it to, which has been surprising to psychologists, I think, it might be surprising to you and your listeners. Yeah. So I think that the intuition makes a lot of sense. But we haven't found a lot of evidence for that. Now, there might be some technical reasons about the way that we measure these things that are not allowing us to find that pattern that you would expect. And the psychologists have tried to find we there isn't a lot of evidence in the way that we measure these for that type of effect. But again, I agree that it's totally intuitive. And it might be due to the methods that we're using to assess it.
Morten Andersen 37:01
That's really interesting, because the I would have thought that that would have been how it was. So that's really interesting. Now, I think most people would know, or have guessed that our personality, our genetic makeup is a large part of that. I don't think many people would assume that happiness and our level of happiness is, is something that we're born with, or is heritable. What do we know about how how much genetics play a role in our level of happiness?
Richard Lucas 37:33
Yeah, so it's, it's really, it's pretty similar to what we find for personality traits. So you know, maybe a little bit lower. So some of the heritability estimates for a single measurement of happiness might be 40%, or something like that. So it's, you know, similar to personality. And yeah, and I think people are surprised about that. It depends a little bit on how you think about it, though, I think that a lot of times, it might be surprising to us, because we can kind of look back on our lives and say, Oh, I was really unhappy when that thing happened to me. And so we noticed the changes that we noticed the associations with events. And we don't see the way that our, you know, our outlook on life leads to this constant positive or negative evaluations of the things that are happening to us. So in terms of what we would attend to, I think that we might miss the ways that if there is this constant effect of our genes in terms of on our outlook, it might not be quite so obvious to us. It's only when we look across different people and see how they approach the world differently and view the world differently, that it makes a little bit more sense, he would have those effects there.
Morten Andersen 38:33
So in the beginning, I talked about the hedonic treadmill model, which essentially say that we have a baseline of happiness. And that baseline is different from you and me, and you can you can be maybe I'm a little bit lower, maybe you're a little bit higher, who knows. But at the end of the day, we have a set baseline. And once we have happy experiences, we it goes up, but then it goes back to that baseline. And if we have negative experiences, we'll feel unhappiness, but then they'll go back to baseline. How true is that model? Do you think?
Richard Lucas 39:04
Yeah. And that's a big part of what I've been studying in my career. And we've looked at it in lots of different ways to try to find this. And I think that there's some good evidence for and there's some things that make me question how useful that model is. So one of the things that is evidence for it is the fact that life events, many life events don't have as big of an effect, as we would think, at least in the long term. So, you know, we've done studies where looked at what happens to people's life satisfaction when they get married, and it has an effect on them for a little bit, but then they kind of on average, come back to where they were those types of studies, I think people have pointed to as evidence that there's a hedonic treadmill. But at the same time when we do these studies, where we now have 20 or 30 years worth of data, where we sample people every year and ask them what their life satisfaction is. There's an incredible amount of stability from year to year, which seems consistent with hedonic treadmill. But actually once we get out to 20, 25, 30 years, then there is actually a lot of change that's going on in people's happiness, which seems to contradict that hedonic treadmill type of idea. And so it is possible that it's not that we're so stable that we can't change and life events don't matter. It's again that we have these very idiosyncratic reactions to life events that make it appear like life events don't matter. But it's really that we just have very different reactions to those life events. So over the years, I've become more convinced that even though I do believe that personality matters, and I believe that there probably is this, something like a baseline or something like a constant effect on the way that we view the world, become more open to the idea that there are ways that we're changing over long periods of time with events changes, but that are difficult to study, because they might be pretty idiosyncratic in the way that we react to things.
Morten Andersen 40:44
Yeah, and I guess, because our personality also changed. So neuroticism declines over over the years and conscientiousness increase over the years. And those two things are actually likely to lead to a little bit higher level of of happiness, so to speak, you'd probably expect happiness to increase over the lifetime of a person, I suppose, I suspect.
Richard Lucas 41:05
Yeah. And there's, there are some patterns that are consistent. And actually, it's a little bit it's not doesn't map on completely to that. But there are some changes. So actually, the most common pattern that people find, which isn't always found, but is there's a U shaped curve from young adulthood through older adulthood. So people when they're, you know, 18-20, they're pretty happy, they then decline into and so, you know, middle age 40-45 is supposed to be the worst part of this, and then people start to climb back up. And then people who are, you know, in their 70s, and 80s, are supposed to be as happy as the people that were 20. That pattern is found in a lot of studies, at least in western countries. So I think there's something robust about that. Yeah.
Morten Andersen 41:46
I've seen some people correlate that with when they get children and when they get their grandchildren. Things like that.
Richard Lucas 41:53
Morten Andersen 42:03
So we come to the point of our conversation, where we turn to discuss how or if it's possible to influence our happiness. And I guess, there are only so many of my children, I can see being born and there's only so many marriages I can go through. So I can create moments and life events that will create happiness for me. But what about long term well being if I want to raise my level of long term well being? Is there anything I can do to do that?
Richard Lucas 42:31
Yeah, so I think that that is the the big question, I think and happiness research right now. So again, as I said, we have now have a pretty good sense about what sorts of things correlate with well being. And now people are trying to translate that into what could we do either in terms of big interventions that we apply broadly, or in terms of decisions that people can make in their own lives to make them make themselves a little bit happier? Unfortunately, I have not been super impressed with the intervention studies that we have done. So there are some there are some that argue that there are successful strategies that people can use. I think that there's some preliminary evidence, but I think we need to do a lot more to know for sure whether those things are working. So you know, the big types of targets, I think that people have investigated in these studies are things like mindfulness interventions, So mindfulness, meditation, these sorts of things, some things that have to do with appreciating good things. So gratitude journals, and these sorts of things. And I think that there's some promise there, but I want to see more evidence that these work before I would be confident they do. So I think that you know, for I think, for individuals or for even for my own life, what sorts of things I would try to do would be to do a couple of things, which is to look at that descriptive research and see the things that I think that are most strongly associated. And then even if there isn't strong evidence, maybe try some of those things out, and also then maybe tailor them to the types of things that I think I value most, you know, there is research that social relationships are matter for well being. Again, I have some questions about the nature of that causal Association there. I, you know, I think that if I had to bet on it, I would say that pursuing strong social relationships is probably something that is going to be good for people's well being. And I think that there's lots of reasons why we might expect it, I think it's often pleasant to be around people that you like, but they also can provide, you know, support in times when things are bad. And all these things might add up to improvements in people's overall happiness. I do tend to believe although I think that again, finding evidence for this is difficult, but I think that you know, finding engagement in different types of activities, finding some source of meaning in your work or your hobbies or these sorts of things, even though I don't have a intervention study that I can point to to prove that this is correct. I think that those are the types of things that I think that that are going to be likely to make a difference for people
Morten Andersen 45:00
Okay, I think that makes a ton of sense of the social relationship, those extroverted people generally tend to be happier. And that that could maybe be the reason for that they are more likely to engage in social relations. And therefore that that sounds like a really interesting one. Yeah.
Richard Lucas 45:15
One other piece of information of evidence that I think is important there too, is that I think that even for introverts, I think introverts get a lot of benefit from social interaction as well, it just might be a very different kind. So we've done studies where we have, you know, followed people, you know, by sending text messages, you know, multiple times per day. And you know, one of the possibilities from those studies was that the extroverts are going to love being with people and the introverts, we're going to be loved, we're going to love being alone. But in all of our studies, and other people have found this as well, both extroverts and introverts are happier when they're with other people than when they were alone. And it may just be the extroverts want to go to group settings and parties and these sorts of things. And introverts want to spend time with one or two other people. And they might have different different social activities that they want, but they might both get something out of social activity. So even for introverts, I think we can point to some of the associations with social activity in general to say that they would probably still benefit from some type of social activity and social relationships, even if it's different than what extroverts do.
Morten Andersen 46:18
Okay, great. That that gives me a little bit of hope still. Right now of my personality traits, you know, you have to to like who you are, so to speak. But if there was one that I would like to change, that would probably be my my high level of neuroticism. And I know that that might decrease as I age. But is there anything I can do to change that trait? Can you actually go in and take a particular trait and say, I would like to, to work on that. Is that possible? Yeah.
Richard Lucas 46:47
So I think that for people who have really extreme levels of neuroticism, I think the you know, this, you know, actually, I think that therapy is not actually an unreasonable solution for those people. I think that some of the things that happen in therapy, and there is some evidence, there's some now, some newer meta analyses and studies looking at the extent to which therapy can lead to changes in personality traits, and one that it does seem to be related to his changes in neuroticism. And so I think that to the extent that there are extreme, you know, people have extreme scores on these things. I think that that that can work. And then I think it is possible that some of the things that we're investigating, you know, the researchers are investigating in terms of happiness interventions might actually be interventions for personality traits like neuroticism. So if it is the case that something like a mindfulness intervention works, you could see it working through some of the characteristics of neuroticism, so not worrying so much letting things go least not ruminating about things. So it's possible that some of the interventions that people are pursuing will ultimately have their effects through the impact on things like neuroticism, there is some hope, at least, and some theories that would suggest that by changing those ways of thinking about the world, that you'd be able to make a difference in the on those traits,
Morten Andersen 48:05
what I hear from you is essentially you're saying that the treadmill, it's probably not as stable as that model is suggesting that you, you have a baseline and you cannot do anything about that. But I'm also not hearing that you can do something and tomorrow, you are a completely different person, you know that it will take time and effort, and you can change it a little bit. But it's it's probably not going to be dramatic. Is that? Is that sort of where you stand on this? Yeah, I
Richard Lucas 48:30
think so. And the other thing I think, to keep in mind is that because we haven't found the secret doesn't mean that people aren't successful in changing their happiness. And again, part of my intuition, based on my reading of the research, but also just, you know, my observation of myself and other people is that these changes are idiosyncratic. So I think that sometimes people might look at the literature on happiness interventions and get really discouraged about their ability to change. It is worth trying, the solution for you might be different than the solution for me. And the interventions that people are talking about may affect some people, but not others. And so I think that kind of paying attention to what are the things that make people happy? And what are the things that seem to be working for them might be the best approach and just in terms of, you know, learning about possibilities, trying new things, seeing what works for them, and recognizing that this is something that might take some time and might be unique to you. And it might not be quite so general.
Morten Andersen 49:28
When I read through the research and literature on happiness and personality, one thing that strikes me is the low level of correlations. So when I worked in finance, when we did the statistical models, we didn't look at anything below point seven or point eight. And in psychology, we're down to point 2-3. And we're all happy and just that sounds a little bit nerdy, but just for the listeners. So correlation essentially just means how much a second variable changes if we change the first variable. So for instance, Let's say that you increase. So your change of of neuroticism goes down. How much do your does your happiness increase? And what is the correlations between these two, and the correlation is actually really, really low. So I think it's point 14-15-16, or something on neuroticism, and happiness. So how much confidence do we have in this when it sort of boils down to it?
Richard Lucas 50:24
Yeah, I think that that's a really important point. And I mean, there's different ways of looking at that. So I think people have been disappointed with the size of some correlations. And to me, it makes perfect sense, because we all have into different intuitions about what things matter, or we have intuitions the different things matter. So for instance, I think the best example is with income. You know, the correlation between income and happiness is often around point 1.5 or point 2, it just seems like a very small correlation. And people sometimes dismiss it as being an important. But we would only expect income to have a really, really strong correlation, if it was the only factor that mattered. So if the correlation was super high, then that would mean that health couldn't matter. And it would mean that social relationships couldn't matter. And it would mean that how much you liked, your job couldn't matter. And so every time we have another factor that matters, it's going to reduce the correlation between income and happiness, because someone could have a low income, but have good relationships, good health, and a job that they liked. So to me, I think that the small core, I think that the small correlations do have implications for how we're able to study these things, and what types of methods that we're going to be able to use. And it means that we have to be really careful about those methods. But to me, the size of the correlations themselves just reflects the fact that these are complicated things. And there's complex factors that can influence us. And once we get there, we have to have small correlations.
Morten Andersen 51:47
Great to finish off with, I always ask a question, which is sort of top three advice or do's and don'ts. So if you should give our listeners sort of three good advice to increase their level of happiness, however hard and was small that might be? What would they be?
Richard Lucas 52:04
So one again, just going back to what I said earlier, is that I think that for the people that are really low in happiness, I think that some of the things that we've been talking about in terms of stability, and these sorts of things are not necessarily relevant to what they want to do. And they're in those cases, I do think that, you know, thinking about therapy, and those sorts of things, I think, could be really useful. And so those people shouldn't get discouraged or depressed by kind of the fact that you know, that there is evidence for stability. And I think that that would be one thing I think that people could try in that case. A second one is to kind of have a sense of what you know, is what other people are like. So I think that we may have the sense that, you know, if I'm not perfectly happy all the time, that everybody else is always ecstatic. And so, in some ways, I think people can kind of feel like, even if they're fine, they might feel like they're missing something by not being as happy as other people. So I think one of the things that is useful is just to learn that very few people are a 10, out of 10, on these skills, lots of people kind of experience on happiness, and worry and anxiety. And if that's working for you in your life, and you're only a seven or an eight, maybe you don't need to be a nine or a 10. And so I think sometimes actually just kind of not worrying about worrying or not worrying about not being happy enough, I think can kind of make people focus on other things, which is ultimately beneficial. And then the third piece of advice, then I think, would be just to kind of think about the things that are the biggest correlates. And that's where some of the other strategies that we talked about before in terms of Mount it's probably worth it to try making sure that social relationships are pretty good. It's probably worth it to try to think about things that you can be engaged in and find a sense of meaning, even if we're not 100% sure that those are causal effects there. I think that there's a good chance they are, I think that it's worth trying. And so those are the types of things that I would try to spend my time on if I was concerned about getting happier.
Morten Andersen 53:53
Fantastic. Listen, Richard, thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with me. I really, really enjoyed this. I enjoyed your book as well. I'll encourage my listeners to to read your books. I think they are fantastic. Thanks a lot for your time and insights.
Richard Lucas 54:06
Great, thanks so much for having me
Morten Andersen 54:09
Thanks, What a great interview, I took three things away from my talk with Richard one. Our level of happiness is linked with our personality, our personalities, the pattern in our thoughts, beliefs, and behavior. Although it may change slightly from day to day, our personality is as a whole quite stable over time. The most tested and valid way to measure personality is the big five, neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. And our score on those big five correlates with our level of happiness. In particular, the higher your score on extraversion and agreeableness and the lower your score on the right The system, the more likely you are to be happy to our personality and our level of happiness is pretty stable and quite heritable. About 50% of our personality is genetic. We know this from extensive twin studies where identical twins separated at birth I compared, I was not surprised that our level of personality was heritable. But I was surprised to learn that our level of happiness was also highly heritable. About 40 to 50% of our level of happiness is genetic. And three, we can influence our base level of happiness. Although Richard is not suggesting that it's easy to change our level of happiness, he does suggest three things that you can do. One therapy does work to manage your social relations and three, engage in meaningful activities. they correlate well with happiness and they will make a difference. Richard has studied personality and happiness for a long time and he is right. We need to know more about what makes us happy. Until next time, take care