I have Libby Purves in the Times today to thank for putting me on to the research of Dr Jason Rentfrow. Working initially in the US (with Dr Sam Gosling from Texas), and now in the UK, Dr Rentfrow claims to show that there is a geographical basis to personality type.
Certain personality characteristics are clustered in certain regions with, for example, people from the South East being outgoing and creative but not very agreeable.
Dr Rentfrow suggest his findings could reflect three processes:
• Selective migration – we move to places that match our personality
• Emotional contagion – moods and attitudes transfer from one person to another
• Environments – certain places contribute to moods (for example, the long dark winters of Scandinavia contribute to a more depressive personality type while the long warm evenings of the southern Mediterranean makes for a more sociable type)
The second thesis is reinforced by the Framingham Heart Study, a uniquely detailed longitudinal study of the residents of a town in Massachusetts. A new analysis of the data shows that happiness is catching. The happiness of others influences our happiness, with a significant effect being found up to three degrees of separation.
Renfrew’s findings are fascinating, and as Libby suggests, provide the basis for legitimising loads of stereotypes. The hard question is whether we can draw any implications for policy. There are many reasons to think not. How well do we understand these effects? Do policy analysts have the capacity, or the policy makers the right, to interfere in naturally occurring patterns?
Having said which, I have argued in the past that, as public service face a squeeze, we need to look for a social multiplier effect from public spending. If happiness – and other socially benign personality traits – spread, then discovering and applying ways of enhancing them would start to look like a very good investment. It might, also, for example, strengthen the case for incentivising more positive and resourceful people from deprived communities to stay in those communities for longer.
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?