Are happy people nicer?

Las Vegas sign
According to geographical personality mapping, Nevada residents are highly open but not agreeable.
Dennis Flaherty/Getty Images

Where do the nicest people live in the United States? According to sociological stereotypes, tourists shouldn't expect to be greeted by warm smiles and handshakes if they travel to New York City. Heading down to the opposite end of the country, perhaps they might enjoy a heaping helping of traditional southern hospitality. Or if they have Pacific Ocean scenery in mind, folks on the West Coast supposedly have a laid back aura about them.

In an effort to sort out whether the geographic-specific traits hold true, a set of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley administered personality surveys to more than 600,000 people in every state. The results ranked each state according to five qualities: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness.


It turns out that our stereotypes hit astonishingly close to the mark. Georgia, for example, ranks as the sixth most extroverted state, while New York hovers at number 32 [source: Renfrow, Gosling and Potter]. You're also more apt to find open-minded people to hang ten with in California, though they might not be very agreeable. Moreover, these personality traits translate into some compelling statistics. Minnesota, North Dakota and Utah are among the most agreeable states and also have low crime rates. In the neurotic Northeast, residents experience more heart-related health problems [source: Simon].

Geographical personality mapping like the Berkeley experiment is an interesting example of the interaction between psychological traits and states. Psychologists refer to our momentary, fleeting emotions that ebb and flow throughout the day as states. At the end of a nerve-wracking business meeting, your emotional state may be exasperated or anxious. When college students finish up their final exams, they probably experience emotional states of joy and relief. Traits, on the other hand, are more permanent. Specifically, they're the underlying emotional characteristics that constitute parts of your unique identity [source: Helliwell and Putnam].

A common personality trait is "nice." One can assume that someone with a nice personality performs unsolicited acts of kindness for others, exhibits selflessness and avoids being judgmental. Where does that positive personality come from? Does a happy state make for a nicer trait?


Happy States and Nicer Traits

duchenne smile
This looks like a genuine Duchenne smile.

It isn't a far stretch to conclude that emotional states of happiness breed nicer traits and behaviors. Think about how you might react to seeing an elderly woman in the grocery store who can't reach a can of beans on the top shelf. If you're a bundle of rage, you might not even notice that she needs help. But if you're having a sunshine and lollipop kind of day, there's probably a greater chance of you stopping to assist her.

So what is it about happiness that compels us to be a little kinder? Positive psychology, or the study of how people can become happier, has drawn correlations between happiness and strong social networks. Generally, people with healthy relationships report the highest levels of life satisfaction [source: Huppert, Baylis and Keverne]. In fact, various studies have shown performing acts of kindness, such as volunteering, bestows the same emotional boost as receiving a doubled salary [source: Huppert, Baylis and Keverne].


Similarly, research indicates that genuine happiness makes for a happier home life. One study tracked the lives of 141 high school seniors into middle age. By examining their yearbook photos, the facilitators determined how happy the students were at the time based on their smiles. Duchenne smiles that cause more muscle contractions in the face reflect authentic joy, while Pan American smiles are rigid and posed [source: Seligman]. Overall, the students with the Duchenne smiles were more likely to be in lasting marriages and have a greater sense of well-being down the road than the Pan American group.

What does this have to do with nice personality traits? The broaden-and-build theory of psychology claims that positive emotions promote innovative ways of thinking and acting. Rather than spiraling downward emotionally, broaden-and-build posits that you climb upward and reach out to others. Likewise, people who are busy volunteering and fostering healthy marital relationships must exhibit nice behaviors along the way. Also, at some point, building social networks depends on reaching out to others and demonstrating goodwill. In short, doing nice things requires -- and produces -- positive emotional states.

In life, it's impossible to always keep a Duchenne smile plastered on your face. Moreover, even the nicest personalities have their tense moments. But just as a genuine smile can brighten someone's day, nice behaviors can elicit happiness in others as well, whether in neurotic New York, extroverted Georgia or anywhere in between.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Carr, Alan. "Positive Psychology." Psychology Press. 2004. (May 6, 2009)
  • Huppert, Felicia A.; Baylis, Nick; and Keverne, Barry. "The Science of Well-Being." Oxford University Press. 2005. (May 6, 2009)
  • Renfrow, Peter J.; Gosling, Samuel D.; and Potter, Jeff. "A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics." Perspectives on Psychological Science. The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 23, 2008. (May 6, 2009)
  • Seligman, Martin E.P. "Authentic Happiness." Simon and Schuster. 2002. (May 6, 2009)
  • Simon, Stephanie. "The United States of Mind." The Wall Street Journal. Sept. 23, 2008. (May 6, 2009)