Sweating the Small Stuff: It’s the Facets of Personality That Reveal Larger Truths


Diamond facet
Facets add to the brilliance of diamonds, and a new meta-study finds they also add predictive pop to our psychological analyses.

Odds are that you are reading this at work. After all, that is where you spend most of your time. And given our lives ebb out mostly in the workplace, wouldn’t it make sense to be happy there? While making a living, shouldn’t we make a life, too?

Human Relations cover
This research in this article originally appeared online first in the website for the journal Human Relations.

That’s the focus of one of the largest meta-analysis conducted in the social sciences: “The effects of personality on job satisfaction and life satisfaction.” Published in the journal Human Relations, it asks what the relationship is between who you are (i.e., personality), your work enjoyment (i.e., job satisfaction) and your happiness (i.e., life satisfaction). Here we answer whether we need to be happy at work to be happy life and what type of person is happiest.

Who you are matters, but perhaps not as much as you think — and it matters more for life satisfaction than job satisfaction. Are you calm, outgoing, friendly and hardworking (i.e., emotionally stable, extraverted, agreeable and conscientious, respectively)? Must be nice, as these account for about 10 percent of the variance or range in job satisfaction scores and about 30 percent for life satisfaction. So while important or influential, they don’t  rise to the level of destiny or fate. You will want health and a sizeable paycheck, too, since both contribute to your happiness.

However, those are just broad strokes. We found that details of your personality sharpen the story, so while the altruistic component of agreeableness comes highly recommended, its modesty component appears overrated. While few like hanging out with braggarts, being too modest can also mean being unassertive. If you are so agreeable that the world walks all over you, it doesn’t contribute to a happy life. For conscientiousness, being willing to work hard is more important than the desire to fastidiously follow the rules. This is especially true for life satisfaction, where examining your personality at the detailed, or “facet,” level provided the biggest bump in prediction.

By the way, at the risk of being immodest, that last sentence is far more important than it sounds. This finding that there is unique predictive information in the corners and edges of personality (i.e., the facets) indicates that some of our ideas about measuring psychological traits have been off base for at least 40 years. Called the “The Bandwidth-Fidelity Debate,” it was thought that facets are less important for setting broad dimensions like life satisfaction and more important for narrow dimensions like job satisfaction. It is the other way around, meaning that a lot of psychological studies — not a mountain but more like a mountain-range worth — should be re-examined at the facet level. By far, we have been focused on general traits alone, such as the Big Five. Consequently, the amount of work that needs to be redone at a sharper level of detail will keep the field of psychology busy for a long, long while.

Finally, we asked what the role of job satisfaction is in having a happy life. Common wisdom is that it is indispensable. Malcolm Forbes, former publisher of Forbes magazine, wrote, “The biggest mistake people make in life is not trying to make a living at doing what they most enjoy.” Steve Jobs, in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, said for example, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” While there many good reasons to be happy at your workplace and several benefits from doing so, including improving the quality of your marriage, you can have a good life without it. Our findings indicate more of a top-down path, where personality influences life satisfaction which then influences job satisfaction. It is a bit counter-intuitive as most, including us, would suspect a bottom-up explanation, where life satisfaction is composed of an aggregation of all of life’s subdomains, including the workplace. But as we found, it is predominantly the other way around.

Still, employers should want to have happy employees. They are more likely to stick around, be more helpful and more productive – all good things. But our results indicate that for you, dear reader, as the employee, more important than having a job you love is having a job in the first place. Much of the same team behind this paper fleshed this point out in the open-access paper, “The Happy Culture: A Theoretical, Meta-Analytic, and Empirical Review of the Relationship Between Culture and Wealth and Subjective Well-Being.” Aside from establishing the relationship between cultural values and national success (e.g., equality and confidence are pivotal), we assessed happiness for full-timers, part-timers and the unemployed. While there was a small drop in happiness for part-timers, the big drop was for those without work. With this finding, we join a growing chorus of like-minded researchers, such as professor Kevin Daniels from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. In our view, society should further focus on enabling those with disabilities, the differently abled, to find meaningful work and allowing them to contribute. Too many times needing some sort of accommodation means getting no work at all.

Hidden in Plain Cite

If the findings we uncovered here are interesting or useful, we remind you that they were largely hidden in the existing research base. Each year, about $2.2 trillion is spent on research and development, though much of it is locked away behind paywalls and cemented in PDF formats. If data is the new oil, researchers like ourselves are sitting on one of the biggest untapped sources – our own academic fields. We relied on meta-analysis to refine the raw data, hidden within our own massive and growing archives of science, into useful findings. Our meta-analyses were among the largest ever conducted because we updated the meta-analytic process for the digital age. Outlined in the open access article “Cloud-based Meta-analysis to Bridge Science and Practice,” we show how findings like ours could be instant and available for everyone, if the process is even modestly supported.

Consequently, this paper itself is a bit of a test case. If people like what we have found, hopefully more support will appear to continue building cloud-based meta-analysis. Once fully developed, we can literarily translate almost the entire body of science into on-demand answers for any science related question, including the top ten questions like losing weight and parental style, ushering in a new renaissance of understanding and reason. And if you want to be part of it, contact me at steel@ucalgary.ca or visit www.hubmeta.com, where we are building the tools you are going to need.  We just need to want it.


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Piers Steel

Piers Steel is a professor in the organizational behaviour and human resources area at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, and is the Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. He is a recognized authority on the science of motivation and is known internationally for his procrastination research.

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