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Executive Journal > Personal & Leadership Development

Psychology of Happiness and Unhappiness
A case study of the mindset and behavior of happy and unhappy personalities.

By Med Jones (Yones)
President, International Institute of Management

(Draft V1.0) 

Changing Your Personality and Your Life.

This case study is based on a research that identified the differences between people who reported frequent or prolonged states of happiness or unhappiness (Please see research note 1 below)

Executive Summary

This paper explores the logic, mindset and cognitive (thinking) patterns of happy and unhappy personalities. It identifies some of the key characteristics of their thinking and behavior, and how they impact their emotional well-being. The research identifies four types of personalities; pragmatic pessimists, irrational pessimists, pragmatic optimists, and irrational optimists. At the end of the paper, a simple, yet effective strategy is proposed to help you transform your personality and lead a happier life.

Keywords: Pessimism, optimism, self-fulfilling prophecy, frequency and intensity of feeling, selective perception, irrational vs. pragmatic, correlation vs. causation,  reinforcement cycle, and sustainable emotional well-being

The Unhappy Personality

Unhappy people tend to be pessimists. The unhappy personalities tend to be irrational pessimist; they exaggerate the negative impact of events and propel their thinking into worst-case scenarios.

Pessimists fall into two main groups(1) pragmatic pessimists; they appear to be good risk managers, and (2) irrational pessimists; they appear to be highly risk averse.

The irrational pessimists miss on socioeconomic growth opportunities and new life experiences. They exhibit the one or more of the following thinking and behavioral patterns:

  • They do not like meeting new people, fear rejection or suspect other people's intentions.

  • They may reject new job offers with higher pay, because they fear uncertainty, regardless of their self-esteem.

  • Unhappy personalities tend to live with bad events longer than when the actual event took place. They can't let go of the past: they dwell on their misfortunes and the mistakes of others for long periods of time.

  • Their minds exaggerate the negative experiences. When something bad happens, it is not just a bad event, it's a bad day or worse a bad life. Some of them are masters of negative chain thinking. For example, if they make a mistake on a project, they think they’ll lose their jobs and in turn their relationships and eventually their lives are destroyed. This causes them a lot of anxiety and stress

  • When a good thing happens, they think it’s a fluke. Pessimists are so focused and preoccupied with negative experiences that their minds filter out the good experiences and their memories recall mainly bad events. They appear to have a selective memory biased towards the negative and risks more than the positive and opportunities.

  • Unhappy people almost always blame others or external life circumstances for their own failures.

  • When bad things happen, most of the time, they find themselves asking a negative "Why me?" or "Why can’t I have this or that? Why can’t I be this or that? Why can't I have a break?"

  • Pessimists tend to justify their attitude by negative historical events or past major traumas, but what they don’t realize is that past events are dead and these events only live in their minds.

  • Their main motto is 'life is not fair'. They tend to be overly sensitive people and use negativity or pessimism as a defense mechanism.

  • They tend to keep their expectations low in order to risk fewer disappointments. What they don’t realize is that this thinking pattern, over time and with practice, creeps into other areas of life, which leads to self-fulfilling prophecy. In some cases, negative expectations of others can lead to passive, defensive or aggressive behavior, which incites similar reactions from others, thus falling into the trap of negative self-fulfilling prophecies. That cycle reinforces their negative expectation of events or people and they declare "I knew it" or "I had a feeling it was going to be bad".

Pessimists become subjected to chronic stress and longer periods of depression, anxiety or anger and may develop mental and physical diseases, such as headaches, high blood-pressure or low sexual-drive.

Worst yet, their expectations of most things and events in life become so low that their life for the most part, lacks excitement and joy. The frequency and intensity of unhappy experiences are much more than happy experiences. They also negatively influence their family, colleagues and friends.

In short, the irrational pessimistic thinking pattern doesn't merely ruin a good time; it causes individuals more stress and exerts a lot of pressure on their personal and work relationships. In other words, "it sucks happiness out of their lives and the lives of the people they love".

On the other hand, let's examine the opposite personality type

The Happy Personality

Happy people tend to be optimists. The happy personalities tend to be pragmatic optimists; they tend to focus on the positive impact of positive events and propel their thinking into best-case scenarios that helps them identify new opportunities and they follow up with actions to capitalize on the opportunities. 

For example, optimists get an invitation to a new project, and then their mind starts to generate positive thoughts. They assure themselves that they’ll look and sound their best and succeed. They become highly motivated and prepare for success. They do not ignore or avoid risks, instead they manage them (but not as good as the pessimists) they instead tend to focus on how to capitalize on the opportunity.

 They exhibit the one or more of the following thinking and behavioral patterns:

  • If someone wrongs them or something goes wrong, they think it is a mistake or a barrier that can be overcome.

  • When optimists make a public mistake, they view it as part of a learning process. They have good self-confidence and they know that no one is perfect.

  • They do not care as much about what other people think of them. Their peace of mind and goals are more important to them.

  • When something good happens, it's a good day; that will add to a good life.

  • The best of them are masters at positive spin. For example, if they make a mistake or fail an assignment, they use it as a learning step for better future performance. Even if they lose their jobs, they believe they can find another one with better pay and whatever skills they have learned at their previous job they can use for bettering their new careers.

  • When something bad happens optimists think it’s a fluke. Most of the time they find themselves asking a positive “How?” They ask, "How can I achieve this? How can I be/do this?"

  • Their main motto is 'life is not fair, but I’m going to make the best of it and learn to be on the winning side."

  • Optimists tend to have better self-esteem and are more resilient to negative events. They use “positive thinking” as a self-defense and self-motivation mechanism. They tend to raise their expectations in order to get the most out their experiences and they view disappointments as developmental lessons.

  • Optimists see life as an adventure, they tend to seek new experiences, they are willing to try new things and meet new people; this helps open a wide range of social and work opportunities for them.

  • Positive expectations of others lead the optimist to behave peacefully, openly, and actively which promotes goodwill and similar reactions from others, thus falling into the positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Optimists experience unfortunate events including disappointments, pain and loss, but hardly stay with them. They recover much faster than the rest. They use these events as lessons and move on immediately. Compared to other people, the intensity and frequency of psychological stress in optimists is significantly less.

  • Their memories tend to filter out negative experiences and sensations. Happy personalities  become subjected to long terms of joy and pleasure and tend to develop strong mental and physical health.

  • They lead healthy lifestyles and have more fun.

  • Their expectations of most events in life become high, their lives, for the most part, are filled with excitement and joy and other people like to be around them.

In short, the optimistic thinking pattern doesn't merely enhance good times; it causes optimists to feel less stressful during life crises and it enriches their personal and work relationships. In other words, it brings happiness into their lives and the lives of the people they love. It is not a surprise that optimists tend to do better in most avenues of life.

Many optimists tend to justify their happiness with good luck, but what they may not realize is that their fortune or life events, whether good or bad, are less important than they think, and that their happiness is a result of their own mindsets and thinking pattern.

Clarification # 1: Optimism should not be confused with positive affirmations. Although this paper addresses pessimism and optimism as its main subject, real transformation and happiness is not the result of positive thinking alone or positive affirmation. Most of the time, positive affirmations do not work alone and must be backed by progressive action and reinforcing rewards.  The keyword is Pragmatic Optimism

Clarification # 2: Happy personalities are not irrational optimists. Irrational optimism  leads to high-risk behavior and falling into the modern life traps, such as scams, drugs, crime or addictions. Like irrational cases of pessimism, unrealistic optimism leads to personal and socioeconomic dysfunction.


We noticed that people who adopt a temporary switch in thinking or actions from negative to positive, experience temporary improvements in their reported happiness levels.

Correlation vs. Causation.

It became evident that optimism and happiness are strongly associated with each other. However, the research could not determine the cause and effect of optimism and pessimism. It is not completely clear if the sources of happiness and unhappiness are rooted in nature (genetics) or nurture (family and education). Unhappy personalities appear to have been exposed to major childhood traumas or early negative life experiences. However, we could not tell if it is their own selective memory filtering other major positive historical experiences. The degree and duration of the influence of past events appear irrational.

In some cases, optimism appears to be the effect not the cause of well-being and in other cases, it appears to be the cause.

However, we could see how positive actions, risk management, optimism, and happiness reinforce each other. The same dynamics are true for pessimism, negative actions, risk aversion and unhappiness.


Regardless of the number of positive and negative events that a personality might experience, sustainable emotional well-being, confidence, resilience and happiness appear to be a direct product of optimism, flexibility, continuous learning and improvement. Happy people, have positive focus on opportunities, are avid life learners and adapt quickly to changes in their environment. Unhappy people have negative focus on risk, are inflexible, stubborn and highly resistant to change.


The key question here is: which group did you identify with the most?

Most people are somewhere in the middle. At different times of their lives, they move between the two ends of the scale, from being mildly to intensely pessimistic or mildly to intensely optimistic.

What’s important is that with the knowledge of how your thinking is impacting your life, you now have a new alternative. By choosing to lead a happier lifestyle and continuously training your mind to think in positive patterns, you can improve your emotional well-being as well as the quality of your life experiences.

However, we believe, that only a permanent change in lifestyle by creating a positive pattern of thinking and actions can lead to a lasting change in your emotional health and well-being.

The solution we found is to adopt the following transformation system:

  1. Re-examine your mind map, including negative conditioning and programming (outlook, values, attitudes, associations, conclusions and belief system)

  2. Be flexible to unlearn limiting or irrational negative programing and learn new positive ones

  3. Plan and build a sustainable personal development and change management system (mental, physical and social) by leading a new lifestyle to reinforce your learning and transformation. In some cases, change of environment and/or relationships is required.

Sustainable emotional well-being, confidence and resilience are the products of continuous learning and improvement. It's not as easy as it sounds; it takes time and practice. Happy personality is not developed in a day; it is a daily development activity. It takes time and effort but the rewards far exceed the cost.


Note 1:

This case study is based on a 1998-2001 qualitative and quantitative research that compared the differences between people who reported frequent or prolonged states of happiness and unhappiness (vs. a state of neutral or normal satisfaction).

Frequent or prolonged states of unhappiness are defined as people who reported negative emotions (such as stress, anxiety, depression, anger, etc.) for more than 28 days in a period of one year. The same applies to states of happiness, but with positive emotions (such as joy, pleasure, hope, vitality, etc.).

The study filters out outliers on both the negative and positive sides. The subjects are asked if they had a life-changing event (For, example, a major gain or loss of income); as these events may skew the average numbers in one direction or the other. Only candidates who have similar and relatively stable lifestyles are included in the study.

The sample population consisted of 100 middle-income individuals (61 male and 39 females) with ages ranging from 24-47.

Note 2:

The definition of happiness in the context of this article is positive emotional well-being. The author uses a non-scientific language for public outreach. A conversational language helps connect with more people than using a research report filled with statistics and scientific jargon. Please contact us for more information about the research.


About the Author
Med Jones is the president of International Institute of Management, a US based best practices education and consulting organization. The Institute development network includes 55 universities and research partners in 40 countries.

What are White Papers?
White papers a research-based papers that provide a list of questions, terminology and discussion points that can be used to address emerging challenges and opportunities. The white papers are succinct work documents designed for communication and problem-solving by the leadership and education team. The structure of the white paper includes three main sections: 1). A statement of the problem or opportunity 2). Analysis of root causes and driving forces 3). Proposed solution and implementation best practices.

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Royalty-free license is granted for using or publishing for educational (non-commercial) purposes, provided that the user/publisher includes a clear reference to the author(s) and International Institute of Management www.iim-edu.org  (Please include the active hyperlink for online publishing). A licensing fee is required for consulting and commercial use.


Corrections and Updates

If we made an error in our papers or missed a reference to a major and direct contribution to the subject matter by earlier authors, please feel free to contact us with correction information and supporting evidence. Updates enrich our papers and ensure the integrity and accuracy of the shared knowledge. The updates and their dates will be listed in this section.



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Last Updated: December 3, 2017.