Long history of subjugation can motivate a sad soulfulness. Dr Brian R Little on national happiness and personal traits.

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Current research has shown that introverts who act extravertedly experience happiness, which often catches them by surprise.

dr-brian-r-littleDr. Brian R Little is an internationally acclaimed scholar and speaker in the field of personality and motivational psychology and currently teaches at Cambridge university. He is also a passionate introvert who scores low on the neurotic scale. But before introducing Dr. Little any further, it is important to mention that he has been debating with his son over the merits of Bulgarian wine for many years, and one of his best students at Harvard was a Bulgarian who won the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Dr. Little, a pioneer in the study of personality and well-being, has provided us with foundational research on how everyday personal projects and ‘free traits’ influence the course of our lives. It has also become an important way of explaining and enhancing human flourishing. His book Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-being gives a new way of understanding the layers of our personality, why we often act out of character, and actually how important that is to our professional success and personal well-being. A new book of the same title and based on Dr Little’s delightful TED talk “Who are you really? The puzzle of personality is coming out this summer.

He divides his time mainly between the UK and Canada, as he currently serves as a Fellow of the Well-Being Institute and Director of the Social Ecology Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University as well as a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has taught previously at McGill, Oxford, and Harvard Universities. A stand-alone statement is the fact that Dr. Little was elected a “Favourite Professor” by his graduating Harvard classes for three consecutive years.

Prof. Little, in the global happiness competition Bulgaria usually scores low. Is happiness universal and is it possible to measure and compare happiness on a cross-cultural/ international level?
I think it is possible to do international comparisons of happiness such research needs to be done with great care. Are the samples truly representative of each country? Are there (see below) international differences in norms about whether to express happiness or unhappiness that may be obscuring the results? Or are such norms a genuine feature of what it means to feel happy or unhappy? And most important of all, happiness is only one aspect of human well-being. Having a sense of meaning or purpose in one’s life is another. A person may be unhappy but still lead a meaningful life (like a single parent who finds meaning in keeping her children healthy and (ironically) happy.

In a recent interview prof. Deirdre McCloskey argued that due to the flawed nature of the research on happiness Bulgarians are wrongly ranked as unhappy due to a cultural trait of perceiving complaining as honourable. What is your interpretation of this argument?
I think this is an intriguing argument and I agree that it may characterise a number of countries such as Bulgaria. Portugal is another one in which happiness is very low, for example. In my book, Me, Myself and Us, I talk about how the Portuguese concept of Saudade, beautifully captured in their fado music expresses a blend of emotions, both sad and happy, perhaps partially captured by the English terms wistful or melancholy.

From what I have heard of Bulgarian folk music there is a sad soulfulness to it that is very evocative.

Could there be a scenario is which the state of being unhappy actually brings happiness? Would it be fair to label a nation as sadomasochistic?
It is rare, but not impossible, to be happy and unhappy simultaneously. For example, in the example I gave above of Saudade, it is an emotion that is experienced as longing for one something or someone that you love (e.g. when one’s lover has gone to sea). Sadomasochistic is quite different and clearly pathological because it involves hurting self and others. I would definitely not label a whole country with that term. But I am fine with talking about a country’s music or literature as melonchology.

Irish music is another example, and it is interesting to reflect on the fact that Bulgaria, Ireland and Portugal have all had long histories of subjugation that can motivate such feelings.

What makes a person prone to experiencing happiness and to what extent are people capable of changing?
There are what I call biogenic features of personality that incline individuals to being more or less happy. For example, neurotic introverts and relatively unhappy and stable extraverts are relatively happy and this is traceable in part to differences in the dopaminergic systems of their neurophysiology. But the human brain is very plastic and it is possible to increase happiness. For example, current research has shown that introverts who act extraveredly experience happiness, which often catches them by surprise.

The modern world seems to demand extroversion for success. Many introverts are forced to act out of character in order to fit in. However, nearly 50% of the people are in fact introverts, according to statistics. What is the evolutionary explanation of introversion and what role do introverts play in society?
I don’t buy the estimate that 50 % of the population are introverts.

The trait of extraversion vs. introversion is a bell shape curve with most people stacked up in the middle—what we call ambiverts.

Those at the (somewhat arbitrary) extremes we can call introverts and extraverts (I’d say the top and bottom 20%). So (equally arbitrarily) all three groups have evolutionary and social functions that are valuable. Introverts, especially neurotic introverts, are adept at spotting danger and potential punishment from the environment and this can serve a protective function for themselves and others. Extraverts, especially stable extraverts, are adept at spotting reward possibilities from the environment and this can lead to positive outcomes for self and others.

Is there a mechanism by which we pick and develop our most prominent traits from the OCEAN of traits?
This is a terrific question to which little attention has been paid in the research literature. Some trait theorists would say we don’t pick and develop our traits—that would be like picking and developing our eye colour. But my students and I have a rather different approach. We have begun to explore how individuals pursue free traits in which individuals try out new personalities in order to advance core projects in their lives. This can both enhance our well-being and detract from it. More details below.

You argue that our third nature is enabling us to rise beyond genes and circumstances – that is, our core projects define us more than anything described so far by psychology. Could you please elaborate on this argument?
I distinguish between biogenic, sociogenic and idiogenic aspects of human motivation and personality. The biogenic aspects correspond to biological, genetic and neurophysiological aspects of personality that are difficult but not impossible to change. The sociogenic aspects reflect the cultural norms and codes that we acquire in the course of socialisation. The idiogenic aspects refer to our singular, personal motivations that drive our personal projects. And to successfully pursue such project we may need to act out of character in which our idiogenic projects require us to defy both our biogenic and sociogenic impulses. For example, an agreeable person (biogenic) living in a society that rewards politeness and positivity (sociogenic influence) may have to act disagreeably because she is trying to get her ageing mother into a care facility and she is met with constant administrative hurdles. For all of August, she acts in a highly disagreeable fashion in order to get care for her mother. In doing this she is defying both her first and second natures.

Dr Little's insightful theories have a chapter dedicated in Susan Cain’s revolutionary bestseller „Quite“ (Cahptered 9 , for those more detail-curious)
Dr Little’s insightful theories have a chapter dedicated in Susan Cain’s revolutionary bestseller „Quiet“ (Chapter #9 for those more detail-curious)

To what extent, would you say, is it beneficial to label oneself as an introvert, extrovert, agreeable, neurotic etc? Would these traits express themselves differently if a person is placed in different surroundings?
People find it interesting to label themselves this way and to a certain degree, I think it is useful to examine how one stands on the big five dimensions. They help explain why we find some aspects of our lives easy or challenging. And many organisations now provide feedback on personality traits which employees are encouraged to share. I think this is potentially problematic.

First, some of the most popular tests that sort individuals into „types“ like extroverts or judging types are not reliable. Take the test a month from now and there is a good chance that your „type“ will have changed.

Second, labelling yourself often leads to you feeling that you are stuck with that label for life. We know that over the lifespan personality dispositions can develop and change and we know that individuals can adopt free traits that help them cope with life’s challenges. So labelling yourself is like putting yourself in an inescapable pigeon hole. I’m not even happy with pigeons being put in pigeon holes.

Third, labelling others with „fixed“ traits can often lead us to stereotype other and explaining away their behaviour as „she’s just being introverted“ or „he’ll never do that—he’s too neurotic.“ I think this leads us to underestimate the capacity of ourselves and others to rise beyond the constraints of biogenic traits or situational norms. As humans, we are more than this.

Are we all capable of experiencing happiness and, if not, is that essentially negative? Is happiness all there is?
Yes, we are all capable of happiness, though in varying degrees and expressed in different ways. Some may express happiness unabashedly and with great enthusiasm. Others may express it with quiet serenity. And no, happiness isn’t everything, but it is one of the more joyous aspects of being a human being. However, having a meaningful life, a life of significance, which doesn’t preclude moments of great joy and happiness, is the most fulfilling of all.

What is your definition of happiness?
We can distinguish between hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being a distinction that has ancient Aristotelean roots. Hedonic well-being is an enjoyable life, a pleasurable life. It is one type of happiness. Eudaimonic well-being is the meaningful life in which we pursue the good and manifest our deepest character. It is sometimes referred to as flourishing. And flourishing, for me, is the sustainable pursuit of core projects in our lives. It is concerned less with mere happiness than with what I call well-doing—acting so as to increase one’s own core pursuits while sustaining those of others.

*The least satisfied Europeans are Bulgarians, according to a research released by Eurostat on 20th March 2015. The UN’s World Happiness Report of 2013, 2015, 2016 ranked Bulgaria respectively 144th, 134th and 129th out of 158 countries, which places Bulgarians amongst the losers in the global happiness competition.

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