“Don’t look back. Leave the past in the past. Just keep moving forward.” How often have you heard that string of wisdom as you’ve been making your way through life? Well, you’re about to hear the opposite. A new study published in the June 20011 issue of Personality and Individual Differencesis telling us to reverse our thinking if we want to be truly happy.

Intrigued, I placed a call to the Personality and Well-Being Lab at San Francisco State University (SFSU), where assistant professor of psychology Ryan T. Howell, PhD, focuses on learning all he can about the factors that affect human happiness. He told me that research has consistently found that personality has a strong influence on personal happiness and satisfaction. This is not only because it affects how you go about each day — but also because it shapes how you think about past events in your life. Now, what does your level of optimism, which pertains to the future, have to do with your past? Ah, we shall see…


With the assistance of his coauthor, UC Berkeley PhD student Jia Wei Zhang, Dr. Howell assessed the 750 participants (all undergraduate students) in order to determine whether there was a predictable pattern linking positive memories of the past with optimism for the future and negative memories of the past with pessimism for the future.

  • Participants were asked to rate themselves on the “Big Five” personality traits — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. (You can see where you stand on “The Big Five” at http://test.personality-project.org.)
  • They were asked questions about their view of past experiences — for instance, did they enjoy thinking about the “good old days”? Did they savor happy memories? Did they tend to reframe painful experiences in a more positive light?
  • They were asked to rate how satisfied they felt about their lives overall and were queried about whether they believed it was hard work or fate that shaped what happened in their lives or would shape their future outcomes.

Results:The study showed that the greatest influencer of current life satisfaction was how the students viewed their pasts… and that the greatest differences in current life satisfaction were found between those who scored high on the “extroverted” scale and those who scored high on the “neurotic” scale. The remaining three of the “big five” traits were not associated with more or less happiness in life.

Dr. Howell concluded…

  • Highly extroverted people — energetic, talkative individuals who seek out the company of others — tend to be happier with their lives because they embrace a positive and nostalgic view of the past, while also enjoying the everyday pleasures of life.
  • People who score high on the neurotic scale (those who are moody, insecure, fretful, anxious and irritable) are more likely to remember the past with anguish and also have a greater tendency to be unhappy.


It’s notoriously difficult to change one’s personality, but Dr. Howell says you may be able to alter your view of your past — and boost your happiness — by focusing on happy memories and/or trying to reframe sad recollections in a more positive and optimistic way, perhaps by figuring out how those experiences helped you develop strength or self-reliance. It also pays to be kind to yourself and have some self-compassion, adds coauthor Zhang — meaning, try to accept that although what has happened in the past can’t be changed, you can learn from it to make the future better.

At his SFSU lab, Dr. Howell is continuing to study how various factors affect happiness, from where you live to how much money you make to your religious beliefs and social involvement. We will update you regularly on new findings about how to have a happier life, but in the meantime, whenever you can, try to choose glasses that are rose-colored and half-full — you’ll like your life better as a result!

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