What determines someone’s level of life satisfaction, or how meaningful and rich they find their life to be, is a patchwork of components. But new research shows that a key element to being more satisfied with your social bonds, career, and life overall lies within your personality. People who are more emotionally stable, or have a low level of neuroticism, are more likely to have a higher level of life satisfaction than those who don’t, according to the American Psychological Association.
What is emotional stability?
The idea behind the Big Five personality model, created by psychologists Gerard Saucier and Lewis R. Goldberg, is that each person’s personality is a mix of various levels of five key facets: extraversion, emotional stability/neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
Within each trait, people who take the test can score high or low; for example, someone who scores high in the extraversion category is very outgoing and probably finds social interactions easy and nourishing, while someone with a low score is much more reserved. Someone who scores high on the conscientiousness portion is quite thoughtful and attentive, while someone with a low score in that category is much less so.
Emotional stability/neuroticism, the trait that was found to be most correlated with life satisfaction, refers to “the frequency and intensity of negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and anxiety,”says Manon van Scheppingen, PhD, an assistant professor at Tilburg University and co-researcher on the study. So the more emotionally stable you are, the better able you are to handle these emotions, while someone who is less stable is less able to cope with them.
However, the word stability may conjure some misunderstanding. Dr. van Scheppingen says being more emotionally stable doesn’t mean you experience more positive emotions, just that you experience less negative emotions and are better able to cope with them when they do arise.
It’s important to note that all of these personality traits exist on a spectrum. “If you think about this like a continuum, most people are in the middle where they are not completely neurotic and not completely emotionally stable,” Dr. van Scheppingen says.
The connection between emotional stability and life satisfaction
In the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in March, researchers assessed 9,100 Dutch people ranging in age from 16 to 95 years-old over 11 years to see which of the Big Five personality traits corresponded most to higher levels of life satisfaction across their lifespan, regardless of changes in their social roles and responsibilities. The participants answered questionnaires that evaluated how satisfied they were with their social relationships; they also had the 5,928 employed participants answer questions about how satisfied they were at work.
Other previous studies have already shown that people who score high on certain Big Five personality traits—emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness—have higher levels of life satisfaction at different stages of their lives than those with lower scores in those areas, says study co-author Gabriel Olaru, PhD, an assistant professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. But this new study examined how the personality traits played a role over the entire course of someone’s life.
“Our main goal with this research was to look at where the personality is relevant for life satisfaction across the entire lifespan because we thought maybe in young age you have different roles or different tasks in your life than old age,” Dr. Olaru says. For example higher extraversion is connected with more life satisfaction in adolescence because of how that trait lends itself to making friends. “Later on it’s more about being emotionally stable or conscientious because you may already be married and have children and your social relationships are already more fixed, so we were interested in to what degree that plays a role,” he explains.
Even despite changing life circumstances, they found that the most emotionally stable people had high life satisfaction throughout the duration of their lives and the study. They also found that highly conscientiousness people reported more satisfaction with work, and more extraverted and agreeable people were more pleased with their social connections. Plus, people who increased their levels of these qualities over time said they were more satisfied in their work and social lives.
How to become more emotionally stable
So what if you take the Big 5 personality test and find that you score low on emotional stability—does that mean you’re doomed to be less satisfied with your life? No, not at all. Although studies have found that personality is to some extent genetic, it’s not set in stone. “If you can train and you can build habits and keep it up long enough until you can do them without effort, then that may lead to a personality change,” Dr. Olaru says.
“If you can train and you can build habits and keep it up long enough until you can do them without effort, then that may lead to a personality change.”—study co-author Gabriel Olaru, PhD, assistant professor at Tilburg University
According to Viktoriya Karakcheyeva, MD, director of behavioral health at the Resiliency and Well-Being Center at George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, it’s important to remember that everyone is starting from somewhere different from others. But positive skills, like regulating your emotions, can eventually be learned. “Maybe you’re starting at the point where you have more vulnerabilities than someone else, but you can practice those skills,” she says. “It’s about functionality and figuring out what functions best for you as an individual.”
Managing your response to negative emotions and the stress that comes with them is something that can be worked on. One way to think about this, according to Dr. Karakcheyeva, is the stress bucket model, created by psychologists Alison Brabban and Douglas Turkington. The model is a simplified way to think about each person’s capacity for stress and negative emotions as a bucket that gradually fills up as you go about your day.
“Over the course of the day we fill that bucket with different things and those stressors come in gradually or they may come in a big chunk that can fill the bucket up pretty fast,” Dr. Karakcheyeva says. “People who can better handle stress have some sort of well-regulated tap that releases what comes into the bucket gradually.” And luckily, there are plenty of ways to strengthen and create new outlets to help you deal with what life throws your way.
Enriching your life in ways that can alleviate your stress and make it easier to respond to tough emotions looks a lot of different ways, such as creating and maintaining strong social connections. And Dr. Karakcheyeva says that even seemingly basic practices, like time outside in the sun, nourishing your body with food, and getting adequate sleep are part of emptying our buckets.
So how do you make these positive behaviors part of your routine and turn them into lifelong habits that can change your perosnality? Dr. Karakcheyeva says the best way is to “start where you are” and begin incorporating new habits and practices in a way that’s realistic and doable. If they’re achievable, you’re more likely to consistently do them which is key. For example, if you’d like to start meditating and doing mindfulness exercises like joy snacking, don’t start with carving out an extended period of time or deciding it has to be done in a specific, special place.
Instead, try out a quick mindfulness break to see how it goes, and adjust from there. “You can start with one minute a day, and you can even do it sitting in your office where you maybe close your eyes, take a deep breath, pause, and notice what’s going on within your body and scan it for the points of tension, or maybe you get in touch with it just by noticing it and you may just leave it at that,” she says. The point is, don’t set yourself up to fail before you start by making it unachievable.