New study provides insight into how people with dark personality traits think about happiness

by Eric W. Dolan

Machiavellian and psychopathic personality traits are associated with the endorsement of conceptions of happiness that undermine well-being, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology. But narcissistic personality traits are associated with the endorsement of conceptions of happiness that promote well-being.

The new findings shed light on how people with high levels of dark triad traits think about the nature, value, causes, and consequences of happiness.

“Lay conceptions of well-being have not received much attention in well-being research, as the field has mainly focused on studying the levels and predictors of well-being,” explained Mohsen Joshanloo, an associate professor at Keimyung University and the author of the new study.

“My colleagues and I have developed several scales to measure lay conceptions of happiness. This study sought to examine the relation between the dark triad, experienced well-being, and a large set of conceptions of happiness to expand our knowledge of these conceptions and their roles in determining the levels of well-being.”

In the study, 1,177 Korean participants completed assessments of psychological well-being and dark triad personality traits. In addition, they also completed eight surveys that measured various conceptions of happiness: the Fear of Happiness Scale, Externality of Happiness Scale, Fragility of Happiness Scale, Transformative Suffering Scale, Inflexibility of Happiness Scale, Valuing Happiness Scale, Inclusive Happiness Scale, and Eudaimonism And Hedonism Scale.

“This study sought to answer this question: how do the dark triad traits influence well-being?” Joshanloo told PsyPost. “The answer is that the dark triad traits influence well-being partly through promoting certain understandings of well-being. Thus, people with various levels of the dark triad traits tend to like or dislike certain beliefs about well-being, which per se enhances or undermines well-being.”

Joshanloo found that Machiavellianism and psychopathy were both negatively associated with well-being. In other words, individuals with more Machiavellian and/or psychopathic traits tended to report reduced satisfaction with life, more negative affect, and fewer positive relationships.

This association was partially explained by the fact that Machiavellianism and psychopathy were associated with endorsing conceptions of happiness that tend to undermine well-being, such as the belief that happiness is fleeting or that happiness can lead to bad things.

“These people do value and pursue happiness, but they have doubts about the consequences of happiness and their levels of control over it,” Joshanloo explained. “It seems that people high on Machiavellianism and psychopathy take a competitive approach to obtaining happiness, where even achieving happiness may cause troubles (e.g., happiness may induce a sense of rivalry or envy in others). These notions of well-being are compatible with the selfish, nihilistic, and cynical aspects of Machiavellianism and psychopathy, accompanied by the perception that the world is a hostile and competitive place.”

Heightened narcissism, on the other hand, was associated with better well-being. This, too, was partially explained by the fact that narcissism was associated with conceptions of happiness that tend to promote well-being.

The positive relationship between narcissism and well-being “may surprise some researchers and people,” Joshanloo noted. However, “previous research also shows positive links between narcissism and well-being. This may reflect a true positive relationship between narcissism and well-being. But it may also partly be due to other factors.”

“I explain this in the article: The positive link between narcissism and well-being can also be looked at from two other angles. Firstly, the scale of narcissism used in this study predominantly measures the relatively adaptive features of narcissism (e.g., grandiosity and positive self-regard), leaving out more maladaptive features (e.g., exploitativeness and narcissistic fragility), which may inflate the associations with well-being. Secondly, narcissists show a tendency for socially desirable responding and self-enhancement biases (John and Robins, 1994; Kowalski et al., 2018), which may affect their responses to well-being questions.”

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats. “We need to replicate the results with samples from other countries. Plus, the study is cross-sectional and thus causality inferences cannot be made,” Joshanloo said.

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