Can studying the science of personality boost your self-knowledge, or appreciation of others? I think so. And it’s awfully interesting.

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There is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

I tend to scoff at mystical predictions like that, but in fact, I’ve found it to be uncannily accurate as I’ve been working on the Happiness Project.

For instance, about a week after I committed myself to starting a strength-training regiment – really committed myself, not just pretended, as I had many times before – I had coffee with a friend who mentioned that she loved the strength-training work-out she did in a gym near my apartment. Eureka!

For the last few months, I’ve quite literally and repeatedly had this thought: “Boy, I’ve been reading so much about the five-factor model of personality. This framework is intriguing, but I have a lot of questions, especially about the neuroticism factor. I wish I could find some up-to-date, useful source that would lay it all out.”

Eureka! Friday, my copy of Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are arrived. I read it in one night.

I have Twelve Commandments (see left column), of which two are supreme: “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

I hoped that understanding the five-factor framework would help me “Be Gretchen” by giving me insight into my own character, and possibly also help me with “There is only love” by helping me understand other people better.

Nettle lays out the “big five” dimensions:

1. Extraversion – response to reward
2. Neuroticism – response to threat
3. Conscientiousness – response inhibition (self-control, planning)
4. Agreeableness – regard for others
5. Openness to Experience – breadth of mental associations

These categories somewhat, but don’t exactly, mean what a layman might think. For example, I’d thought “extraversion” was basically “friendliness,” but that’s not right. Also, although I’d certainly used the word “neurotic” many times, I realized I didn’t know exactly what it meant.

The book is absolutely fascinating (it’s also comprehensive, short, and well-written, which is hard to pull off). At the end is a twelve-question questionnaire that, though so short, is apparently quite accurate in evaluating people.

In full disclosure, here are my scores:

1. Extraversion – low-medium
2. Neuroticism – low-medium
3. Conscientiousness – high
4. Agreeableness – low (for a woman; if I were a man I’d be low-medium)
5. Openness to Experience – high

The first two categories are particularly useful for someone thinking about happiness: people with high Extraversion scores have very strong positive reactions (they consistently report more joy, desire, excitement, enthusiasm), and people with high Neuroticism scores have very strong negative reactions (fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust, sadness—very often directed at the self).

Learning about the five-factor framework did, indeed, boost my sense of understanding myself and others — which, I hope, will make me more charitable.

I was telling some friends about Nettle’s book, and I mentioned that I scored “low” on Agreeableness. “Surely not!” they cried. “You’re very Agreeable!”

But I wasn’t surprised by my result. I suspect that my friends, as evidenced from their loyal reaction, are more Agreeable.


From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.

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