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What Your Personality Has to Do With Your Neighborhood

Extroverts are more likely to be drawn to a city's center, for example.

Flickr/Donna Rutherford

It’s a well-worn sociological truth that the neighborhoods in which we live can have a powerful effect on our lives. But how do our neighborhoods affect our overall happiness and well being? And what might they reflect about our underlying personalities?

A new study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by an international group of psychologists, including Markus Jokela, Samuel Gosling and Peter J. Rentfrow, takes a detailed look at the intersection of personality and happiness in London. While a growing number of studies trace the happiness of cities and metro areas, and a few have considered the geographic clustering and concentration of personality traits, there has been much less research on the clustering of personality types within cities and the effects of neighborhood location on happiness.

The study explores the neighborhood clustering of the five basic personality traits defined by the classic five-factor model: openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability (or lack of neuroticism). The researchers then examined the clustering of these personality traits and their effects on individuals’ happiness based on an online survey of some 56,000 people in the London metro area. They define neighborhoods by postal districts, of which there are 219 in London.

The maps below, from the study, show the clustering of the five personality types across metro London. The sixth map, on the bottom right, shows the concentration of neighborhoods by happiness or life satisfaction. Red indicates high concentrations of a certain personality trait or of satisfaction, while blue indicates a cluster without that trait.

(Jokela et al.)

The most clustered personality trait the researchers found was “openness to experience” (bottom left map), which is concentrated in the center of London. Openness to experience, according to a wide body of psychological studies, is associated with creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. This type is concentrated in higher density neighborhoods, with higher housing prices, more ethnic and religious diversity and higher crime rates. Meanwhile, the blue concentrations at the periphery indicate that there are fewer people open to experience in metro London’s suburbs.

Extroverted types also cluster near the center city (top left map), though not in the concentration levels seen for openness to experience.  Since extroverts want to connect to other people, it makes sense that they are attracted to denser neighborhoods with greater concentrations of meeting places like restaurants and bars. There is an absence of extroverts at the outskirts of the city. Two types—agreeableness (middle left) and conscientiousness (middle right)—are concentrated in outlying suburban areas.

The last map plots life satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, the map roughly tracks the distribution of wealth throughout metro London, with happier residents generally clustered in the most well-to-do neighborhoods and those with lower levels of life satisfaction concentrated in areas of greater poverty and those with higher concentrations of ethnic minorities. The study finds that neighborhood characteristics accounted for two-thirds of the variance in happiness across neighborhoods, indicating, as the researchers write, “a substantial link between sociodemographic factors and average life satisfaction of neighborhoods.”

The second part of the study examined how the connection between personality traits and happiness varied across neighborhoods. Three key findings stand out here. One, the study found happiness to be most closely associated with emotional stability and extraversion. However, neighborhood location played little, if any, role in this connection.

Two, there was only a weak association between happiness and openness to experience. But this relationship did change according to neighborhood characteristics. Living in densely populated, ethnically diverse neighborhoods lead “open to experience” types to be happier with their lives. Indeed, the study suggests that those of high openness move to neighborhoods full of others with high openness “because these areas provide them with more happiness.”

Finally, the work finds that high agreeableness and conscientiousness were strong predictors of happiness in areas with lower average levels of life satisfaction. The researchers suggest that this means that agreeableness and conscientiousness are more important in determining happiness in less pleasant environmental circumstances.

Overall, the study’s main findings help us better understand the psychological dimensions of cities and suburbs. Urban centers not only draw younger people and more creative types, but make happiest those who get high on new experiences and who are extroverted enough to take advantage of the density and amenities that city center can offer. The most satisfied suburban dwellers are more likely to be agreeable or conscientious personality types.

The big takeaway: It’s not just social and economic forces that shape our neighborhoods. It’s psychological ones, too.

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