New research supports the idea that intentionally developing certain traits is not only possible, but comes with benefits
So much of life is out of your hands. From the start, you didn’t choose where you were born and raised. Later on, from the people you’ve met to whether or not you’ve had good health, a lot will have come down to chance. To the list of random cards you’ve been dealt, you might also be tempted to add your personality, the set of stable traits – such as whether you’re ambitious or idle, outgoing or meek, fretful or calm – that make you ‘you’ and that exert a strong influence over your life.
These traits are strongly affected by factors outside your control, such as your genes and chance life experiences. Yet emerging research suggests they aren’t entirely set in stone – and you can even work to change them. What’s more, a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has now provided preliminary evidence that, by purposefully changing your personality in the ways you want, you can improve your life, or at least your satisfaction with your life.
Personality traits were long considered immutable. Inherent to the concept of personality is that it’s the stable part of you, in contrast to things such as your mood or emotional state. However, over the past decade or so, mounting evidence based on longitudinal surveys has shown that meaningful changes in personality traits can occur over the course of a lifetime. Moreover, this process of deep-seated change can be accelerated to the timeframe of months – for instance, following psychotherapy or via deliberate attempts to change one’s personality.
One international research group that has been investigating deliberate personality change includes Gabriel Olaru (the new paper’s lead author) at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Mirjam Stieger at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland, and others. They developed a smartphone app called PEACH (PErsonality coACH) that guides users through changes in behaviour and other steps to help them shift their traits in the ways they want, such as to become less neurotic or more extraverted.
‘In our previous research, we showed that the PEACH app is effective in changing the Big Five personality traits [the main traits recognised by personality psychologists],’ says Stieger. ‘But it was unclear whether the desired changes … can also lead to improvements in life satisfaction. For example, it was unclear if a person who was able to successfully increase in extraversion would also show improved life satisfaction over time.’ This is what the group’s new research set out to investigate.
People who succeeded in becoming less neurotic subsequently felt more satisfied with life overall
To do this, Olaru, Stieger and their colleagues recruited hundreds of participants who were motivated to change and asked them to indicate one personality trait they’d like to work on. From that point, the team focused on participants who expressed one of the three most popular change goals: wanting to become more extraverted, less neurotic or more conscientious. Then they assigned some of these participants to use the smartphone app for three months and others to join a waiting-list control group (these volunteers got to use the app a little later on).
The app gives users prompts for activities to help change their chosen trait in the way they desire, showing how to plan these behaviours using so-called ‘if/then implementation intentions’. An example is: ‘If I have no meetings before 1pm, then I will go to the gym’. This would be a way to increase productivity and therefore the trait of conscientiousness. The app also guides users through reflections on their change efforts and provides psychoeducational tips and tricks on ways to achieve lasting change.
The participants assigned to the app completed the same personality test at the start of the study, after the intervention, and three months later; they also named a friend or family member to complete the personality test on their behalf at these times. Crucially, on each of these occasions, the participants also rated their overall satisfaction with life, as well as their satisfaction with specific life domains, such as work, friendships or emotions.
As in the previous research, the phone app appeared to be effective: on average, based on their own answers to the personality test, the participants succeeded in changing the trait they wanted to change, in the direction they wanted to change it (eg, becoming more conscientious or less neurotic), and these changes were greater than in the waiting-list control group. What’s more, the changes were sustained three months after the intervention had finished. One important caveat is that the friends’ and family members’ ratings didn’t indicate successful change, but Stieger says this could be because ‘they [had] preconceived notions about the individual and may thus be slower in updating their judgments of personality traits.’
Promisingly, the successful self-reported trait changes were also accompanied by increases in overall life satisfaction and in specific domains of life. For instance, people who succeeded in becoming less neurotic subsequently felt more satisfied with life overall, and specifically more satisfied in relation to their emotional health. People who succeeded in increasing their conscientiousness showed similar increases in their overall life satisfaction, but also specifically in terms of satisfaction with school or work, and with their health.
These apparent positive benefits make sense – for instance, lower neuroticism is known to be associated with better emotional health, and higher conscientiousness with more success at work and healthier living. The study can’t prove a causal chain going from trait change to positive life outcomes to increased life satisfaction (it’s possible, for instance, that using the app has a direct effect on life satisfaction), but that would seem a fair interpretation of what’s going on.
Where past work showed that deliberate personality change is possible, these new findings go further: ‘For those people who are actually motivated and willing to change aspects of their personality,’ Stieger says, ‘the effort of taking part in such a personality-change intervention might be worthwhile [as a way] to become happier in life.’
This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.