What makes a positive trait ? Personality, Emotions and Biology.

Positive trait include an assortment of individual characteristics related to personality, emotions, beliefs, and self-conceptions.

Traits are internal dispositions that color how we see and interpret the world. Traits influence the meanings we give to life events, the choices we make, the goals we select, and the actions we take. We will use the generic term “traits” to refer to all the diverse individual characteristics found to influence well-being.


What Makes a Trait Positive?

The complexities of human behavior and the diversity of evaluative standards make it difficult to distinguish between positive and negative characteristics.

Posttraumatic growth shows how significant positive lessons can result from negative experiences. “Giving up” a personal aspiration, though widely stigmatized, can be a positive adaptation because it may prevent the futile pursuit of unattainable goals. Many individual characteristics necessary for success at work, for example, would likely reduce the quality of one’s family life (e.g., competitiveness).

The Interrelated General Standards to Assess Positive and Negative Trait.

  • First, following the hedonic conception of well-being, subjective well-being (SWB) researchers examine whether a particular individual characteristic enhances or diminishes a person’s level of happiness. Given the three components of SWB, a positive quality may increase the experience of positive emotions, decrease negative emotions, or increase life satisfaction.
  • Second, the eudaimonic view of well-being provides a related, yet distinctive basis for evaluating positive qualities. Eudaimonic research and theory focus on emotional health, positive social relationships, finding meaning and purpose in life, and effective coping and adaptation. Positive qualities are those that enhance mental health, foster high-quality relations with others, and contribute to success in meeting life’s many challenges.
  • Third, many researchers have focused on the physical health advantages and disadvantages of various psychological traits. Physical health measures may include longevity. As in the Nun Study, level of risk for serious disease (e.g., heart disease), physical illness symptoms, speed of recovery from illness or medical treatment (e.g., surgery), levels of stress, and the effectiveness of an individual’s health-maintenance practices.

Certain human qualities appear to be universally regarded as positive, not because they make people happy or healthy. But because they represent morally virtuous behavior and strength of character, as defined by religion and culture. For example, the traits defining people of good character include modesty, humility, kindness, forgiveness, bravery, and integrity. These qualities are positively valued because they reflect people’s understanding of morality, good conduct, and good character.

Personality, Emotions, and Biology.

Paul Meehl credited with advancing the study of positive emotions through his description of individual differences in people’s ability to experience pleasure. As a matter of fact he called this ability “hedonic capacity” and, more humorously, “cerebral joy-juice”.

Meehl proposed that hedonic capacity is a stable personality aspect that is largely genetic in origin. He also believed that hedonic capacity is strongly tied to the personality trait of extraversion. Being outgoing and sociable goes together with the experience of positive emotions.

Differences in people’s hedonic capacity include all possible combinations of emotional experiences. A person experience many positive emotions and many negative emotions, few of either, or more of one than the other.

Positive and Negative Affectivity

Research by Watson and his colleagues shows that positive and negative affect are two independent dimensions of people’s long-term emotional experience. However, the PANAS scale provide a simple measure of emotional experience.

Respondents rate the extent to which they experience a number of positive (e.g., proud, excited). And negative feelings such as distress, guilt. Separate scores are calculated for positive and negative emotions. Henceforth, the independence of positive and negative affect means that people can score high or low on either or both dimensions.

PANAS scores reflect trait differences in people’s characteristic emotional experience, referred to as positive affectivity and negative affectivity.

People high in positive affectivity have frequent and intense experiences of pleasant, enjoyable moods. That are generally cheerful, enthusiastic, and confident about their lives. Whereas, people high in negative affectivity have more frequent emotional episodes involving feelings of anger, sadness, distress, guilt, and fear.

Support for positive and negative affectivity as enduring traits comes from studies showing long term stability and cross-situational consistency. However, positive and negative affectivity are very stable over periods ranging from a few weeks to 24 years.

High positive affectivity shows relatively small relationships to income, education, age, and gender. But it is heavily influenced by, and strongly predictive of satisfying relationships. Differences in people’s levels of happiness boils down to differences in positive and negative affectivity.

Genetics and Happiness

Estimates of heritability are based on studies that compare monozygotic (identical) twins, who have 100% common genes, to dizygotic (fraternal) twins, who share about 50% of their genes. We can see evidence of genetic influence, when the similarity of identical twins significantly exceeds that of fraternal twins. And when identical twins show strong similarities despite being raised in separate environments.

A biological basis for people’s characteristic emotional orientation receives further support from research showing that temperament differences emerge early in life. Temperament refers to a genetically-determined physiological disposition to respond to the environment in a stable and typical manner.

Even in the first few weeks of life, infants show temperament differences in activity level, mood, responsiveness, and how readily they can be soothed and comforted by parents. Some infants are irritable, cranky, quick to become upset, and quick to cry in response to new situations and environmental changes. Others are calm, placid, and approach (rather than avoid) new things in the environment.

Kagan found that about 20% of infants fell into one of two extreme temperament types called “reactive” and “non-reactive”. Highly reactive infants are easily upset by anything new in their environment. Non-reactive children are more laid back and comfortable with new situations and environmental changes. They are more outgoing, curious, and eager to explore the world and the people in it.

Personality and Happiness

Meehl’s prediction about the relationship of positive affectivity to the personality trait of extraversion has been borne out by subsequent research. Studies also find a strong tie between negative affectivity and neuroticism. In addition, extraversion and neuroticism are two factors in the Big Five Theory, or five factor model of personality.

Related: Big five theory of personality.

Over the last three decades, personality researchers have accumulated an impressive amount of evidence. That says five relatively independent factors describe the essential features of individual personality. The five factors are also very stable across a person’s lifetime and validated in cultures around the world. However, each of the five global traits (extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) is made up of more specific, subordinate traits.


Positive Psychology. Baumgardner and Crothers. 2015. Pearson India Education.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing. William C. Compton , Edward L. Hoffman. 

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