Happiness Is Fit—Between Who We Are and Who We Are Busy Trying to Be

          There are two ways to be happy: one is unintentional, the other intentional. One is unplanned, the other planned. First, the unintentional, unplanned way to be happy. Simply put, it is to be born scoring in the top third of Extraversion (E+) and in the bottom third of Need for Stability (N-). (Click here for more information on the Five-Factor Model of Personality). About one person is nine (1 in 3 times 1 in 3 is 1 in 9) is born with these qualities: full of positive emotions and absent negative emotions (for the most part). Three film characters illustrative of this kind of unintentional happiness are Guido played by Roberto Benigni in the movie La Vita é bella (“Life is Beautiful”), Maria played by Julie Andrews in The SounWhat N-E+ looks like!d of Music, and Annie played by Aileen Quinn in Annie. Guido does not vary from his typical level of happiness even when in a concentration camp with his son—his happiness stays, but its expression morphs into pranks played with his son at the expense of their guards. Maria is temporarily quietened only to recover her irrepressible extraversion to the degree that her fellow nuns sing in puzzlement, “How do you solve a problem like Maria? …How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?”  Little Orphan Annie, in spite of bullying, threats, deprivation, and the loss of her parents, nonetheless clings to her optimism, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun!”

          If one out of nine of us is born that way, then what can the other eight of us do? I am one of those eight. I am mid range in both Need for Stability and Extraversion. I have moments of happiness, but that is the exception. Yet, I love my life for the most part, and can think of few ways I’d like to change it. How have I, and how can others, plan for happiness when/if it doesn’t come naturally? Persons who report greatest life satisfaction tend to be those who engage in roles that are most consistent with their: 

  •  traits (e.g., selling and extraversion, large family and extraversion, volunteer work and high Accommodation/Agreeableness)
  • abilities (musician and high Hearing/Auditory talent, professional athlete and high Physical/Kinesthetic talent)
  • physical characteristics (one with lower sleep requirements in emergency medicine)
  • salient memories (such as my memory of playing chamber music with my brother in New Haven)
  • strongest values (making time for exercise for Health, able to travel widely for Aesthetics)

          Jeff McCrae and Paul Costa (2003) call this an undifferentiated sense of self, contrasted with a differentiated self, one in which the individual tends to take on many roles that are not supported by traits (e.g., more introverted persons in a selling role; more creative persons in a repetitive, proofreading role; more considerate persons in a competitive role). These differentiated selves are more likely to have a “shaky and uncomfortable identity.”  Persons who are high in Need for Stability appear to have more of a tendency to take on such roles, continuing to experiment in search of the right role, but continuing to be somewhat unfulfilled, “like an insomniac who cannot find a comfortable position in bed.” (Costa & McCrae, 2003, p. 229) The goal for optimal personal satisfaction is to be “undifferentiated”–what you see is what you get. The same at home and abroad, at home and at work.

–adapted from soon-to-be-published The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22 which I have written with my wife, Jane Mitchell Howard.

One thought on “Happiness Is Fit—Between Who We Are and Who We Are Busy Trying to Be

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  1. Being a member of the one in nine, this helps me understand why others look at me like I’m nuts! I’ve come to accept that my naturally happy disposition is foreign to many; however, this helps me generate some ideas to “coach” friends, loved ones, and co-workers toward a happier self! Thanks, Pierce.

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