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There’s Hope!

Hidden Hills (aka, Flooded Hills)

January 10, 2023

Interesting article from today's WSJ. The Journal surprises me sometimes with articles like this one that don't seem to fit with the usual WSJ article. This one does not deal with government bashing, monolithic institutions or man made climate change opposition.

The article:

Many of us have one aspect of our personality we’d love to change. A short temper. Inability to let things go. A penchant for procrastination. 

For years, researchers thought it was impossible to change your personality. It was fully formed by early adulthood and that’s it.

But now, a body of research by personality psychologists shows that we can change, that many of us want to, and that we’re often happier when we do. A key is to start small. Use your strengths to change your weaknesses and fake it until you make it.

“Changing your personality is similar to losing weight,” says Nathan Hudson, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, who studies personality change. “Just setting the goal won’t help; you’ve got to take actionable steps and stick with it.”

Most people who want to change tend to focus on a specific characteristic they find undesirable or a pattern of behavior that is causing them problems, says Dr. Hudson. His research shows that when they do make positive changes, they experience an increase in life satisfaction.

“Personality” is a broad umbrella term for a characteristic pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that people take with them across situations and time. It includes our skills and abilities, goals, motivations and traits. These traits, which are typically adjectives, such as calm, curious or caring, are what most people think of when they hear the word personality.


Have you successfully changed an aspect of your personality you didn’t like? If so, how did you do it? Join the conversation below.

Researchers categorize personality traits into five groupings, known as the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Each of us has all five of these types of traits. But we each have different levels of them. 

Our personality continues to develop throughout our life, often after major life changes. Much change occurs in early adulthood: When people start their first job, they typically become more conscientious, emotionally stable and—yes—agreeable, says Brent Roberts, a personality researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 

A study, published in 2019 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that followed a nationally representative sample of almost 1,800 Americans for 50 years, from ages 16 to 66, found that most people change their personality a great deal over the course of their life. Yet how their personality compares with others remains somewhat consistent. So while the shyest kid in kindergarten might grow up to be a bit more extroverted, she’ll still probably be one of the quietest adults at a cocktail party.

“People change, but they’re still recognizable,” says Rodica Damian, associate professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Houston, who was the lead researcher on the study.

Changing your personality, like changing a habit, takes time and effort, psychologists say. Many people who want to make big changes choose to go to therapy. But you can successfully work on this at home, too. Here’s how. 

Identify which traits you want to change.

Be honest about your weaknesses. 

If you’re brave, you can ask your loved ones for help. Or you could take a personality test. The psychologists I spoke with all recommended the Big Five Inventory, which you can find through Google. 

Journaling may also be effective, says Erica Baranski, a psychologist who runs the Mechanisms of Personality Change Lab at California State University, East Bay. She recommends you write about a situation where you felt anxious or down and explore what it is about yourself that may have contributed to this feeling. That will help you recognize what to work on.

Start small—and be specific.

Set a realistic goal. “Be a happy person” may not be a good start—it’s too big and fuzzy. But “be kinder to strangers” is manageable.

Once you’ve identified the Big Five personality domain you want to work on, do a search for the traits in that domain. Then pick one to start. Want to boost your openness? Aim to be more curious.

Fake it until you make it.

Behave as if you have the personality you want, recommends Dr. Hudson.

Break your goal into manageable chunks. You can do this by identifying small actions to change. Think about people you know who have the personality trait you want. How do they behave? Copy them. 

Identify discrete actions, and create a to-do list. Trying to be a more organized person? Put “reply to emails in 24 hours,” “leave five minutes earlier for meetings” and “keep an updated calendar” on your list.

It also can be helpful to make an “if-then” plan, says Dr. Damian. If you want to be friendlier, tell yourself: “If I get on the elevator at work with other people, then I will say hi.” Psychologists call this an implementation intention.

Use your strengths.

Say you’re shy but diligent. If you’ve decided you want to be more talkative, make a detailed plan: Who will you talk to? When? How will you start the conversation?

“Leverage the things you’re already good at to help with your weaknesses,” says Dr. Roberts.

Track your progress. 

You need to hold yourself accountable, says Dr. Baranski. 

Keep a log. For some, this may be a journal. For others a spreadsheet. You’ll know what works for you.

Write down your daily goals: “I’m going to smile at three strangers and give one compliment today.” Set a reminder on your phone so you can remember them.

Then make a plan to reflect on your progress regularly, say once a week. How do the changes in your behavior make you feel? Is there anything else you can add? 

Stick with it.

Personality change is slow. When Dr. Hudson studies it, he sees small shifts take months. But he does see change happen. 

“Personality is like the stock market—there will be temporary ups and downs,” he says. “But over the long-term it will have an upward trajectory, especially if you work at it.”

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Jan 17, 2023

Excellent piece, Lucian -- Thank you! I will be heading to Indiana for a year-long mission trip to help a friend and to change a couple aspects about myself I don't like. This reinforces my hope!

Jan 17, 2023
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