Why the nicest people aren’t necessarily the happiest?

People who are nice and agreeable are generally well-liked and valued in their communities.

Being highly agreeable is sometimes linked to lower life satisfaction, new research suggests.

Excessive niceness may render people vulnerable to exploitation, in which case others may lose respect for them.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the expression that “nice guys (i.e. people) finish last,” but have you ever given it much thought? Why would nice people be less likely to do what it takes to win? Perhaps you have a friend who never seems to mind if other people are rude or dismissive. Even when you’re in a bad mood, this person takes no offense when you vent your anger and frustration. Like a comfy warm pillow, you can always count on your friend to make you feel better.

Why Would Nice People Finish Last?

It would seem like nice people would actually have an edge over nasty people in the social hierarchy. Others want to be around them because they radiate positive energy. Why, then, would they “finish last,” and is there any truth to this cliché?

According to Umeå University’s Filip Fors Connolly and Ingemar Johansson Sevä (2021), there are solid theoretical reasons for the lack of advancement shown by people who are too nice. Corresponding to the Five Factor personality trait of agreeableness, the quality of niceness is one that can stymie an individual’s potential to rise to the top. Other people may like the chronically agreeable, but they don’t necessarily choose them to be leaders.

Thinking about your friend, is this someone you could see as representing anything more than as someone to cozy up to when you’re in need of a morale boost? Could you see this person as someone’s boss, a person who gives orders that others must follow?

Connolly and Sevä observe that “One explanation for the weak association between agreeableness and status may be that people high in this trait are more motivated to be liked rather than admired.” The authors go on to explain that “one can respect someone whom one does not like (an accomplished rival), and like someone whom one does not respect (a friendly buffoon).” Your friend may not be a buffoon, but would you ever consider them to be an accomplished rival?

The Relationship Between Agreeableness and Life Satisfaction

The Swedish authors point out that when it comes to life satisfaction, there are two potentially key influences related to an individual’s position in the “local ladder” or social group. People move to the higher rungs of this ladder when they have strength in two basic qualities. As the authors note, “any social encounter or interpersonal relationship can be characterized in terms of the degree to which each individual is perceived as having instrumental social value (status, respect) and relational value (acceptance, liking).”

Referring to instrumental value as “status” and relational value as “inclusion,” the authors sought to test the associations between these qualities and life satisfaction as influenced by personality. Their hypotheses predicted that with lower levels of status, the highly agreeable don’t receive respect and admiration, leaving them deficient in this one key contributor to feelings of well-being. Your friend’s comfy pillow qualities, according to this interpretation, turn them just as easily into the proverbial doormat rather than as someone you’d be afraid to offend.

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