This Is The Most Surprising Way To Make Your Life Awesome
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
What if you could be someone else?
Not a totally different person. But what if you could be a better version of you? You 2.0.
We’d all like to change something about ourselves. (The phrase “character defects” exists for a reason.) Being less stressed and more organized might be nice. But the benefits actually go a lot deeper than that.
Want to stay not-dead for as long as possible? Want to be successful in your career? Want to be happier? Your personality has a lot to do with all of those.
Another study, this one of over twenty-six thousand people in the United States, found that, independent of their family’s social status, individuals’ personality traits at high school were related to their longevity… Personality traits also correlate with future career success more than factors related to family and parental background, and nearly as much as intelligence… In terms of happiness, a recent estimate placed the monetary value of a small reduction in trait neuroticism (a propensity for negative moods, stress, and worry) as equivalent to an extra $314,000 income per annum.
For the longest time, psychology said you really couldn’t change your personality much. But new research is showing we have more power over our disposition than was previously thought. With effort, you can change aspects of who you are – especially your levels of extroversion and neuroticism.
I’m not saying you’re going to completely overhaul who you are or that it’s going to be easy, but you can make a difference. And as that happiness research shows, even a small tweak can help.
Well, after our two-year episode of “Black Mirror”, it might be a good time for some personality spring cleaning. And we’ll get some solid insight from Christian Jarrett’s book, Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality.
If you ever felt boxed in by people’s labels of you or felt aspects of your personality were holding you back from a richer life, help is on the way.
Let’s get to it…
You’re Quite A Personality
You may have heard of the Myers-Briggs personality test. Too bad it doesn’t work. Sorry, you’re not an “INTJ” — you’re a “NOPE”. (And saying astrology is “unscientific” is like saying an atomic bomb “may cause some property damage.”)
When psychologists measure personality they use the “Big 5” traits. Each one exists on a spectrum. You can score high, low or in the middle:
- Extroversion is how sociable and energetic you are. Extroverts are more upbeat, optimistic, and happier. People who score very high… well, they probably already stopped reading this to go to see friends. Introverts like me heard about pandemic lockdown last year and said, “I don’t understand. How is this different from everyday life?”
- “Openness to experience” means you dig new ideas, culture, and travel. If movies with subtitles make you roll your eyes, or you go to exotic restaurants and order a hamburger, you score low here.
- People high in Conscientiousness make Marie Kondo seem like Pigpen. They’re on time, organized and send me emails correcting my grammar. People low in conscientiousness don’t finish important things because they’re easily distrac
- Agreeable people are warm, friendly, patient and trusting. If watching the TV character “House” or the comedian Lewis Black feels like looking in a mirror, you don’t score high here.
- Neuroticism is about frequency of negative emotions like sadness and anxiety. (Does that make sense? I’m screwing this up, aren’t I? If I listened to mom and went to law school I wouldn’t have to worry about this…)
You probably have an idea of where you fall in each category but let’s not guess or read tea leaves. You can take a quick test here.
Now how do you change your traits? Well, there’s one incredibly easy way: do nothing. With age, extroversion, openness and neuroticism drop while conscientiousness and agreeableness usually increase. But I’m kinda guessing you were looking for something a little faster than that and probably a bit more customized.
A better approach is to alter your context. Mom said don’t hang out with a bad crowd and mom was right. You will become more like the people you spend time with and you’ll be influenced by the roles you play in life, like your career. Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over those things.
So we’re going to focus on behavioral change. By deliberately and consistently acting in a certain way you can inch yourself in the direction of who you want to be, much like how repeated exercise remolds your body.
Covering every conceivable personality change would be a book-length enterprise so we’re going to focus on the changes most people desire: more extroversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness — and less neuroticism.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Let’s start with extroversion…
(Dear proud introverts: I am not saying you are broken and need to change. I am a card-carrying member of your tribe. If you’re totally fulfilled as-is, skip to the next section.)
That said, many of us do wish we were more social at times. And research consistently shows extroverts are happier. Studies also show when introverts act like extroverts, they get happier too. So there’s good reason for many of us to want to be a little more extroverted.
Luckily, this is simple. I’m not saying it’s easy; I’m saying it’s not complex. To be more extroverted… act like an extrovert. Spend more time with friends. Talk to strangers. Studies show introverts underestimate just how happy these things make them.
If you’re half the introvert I am, doing all these things and talking to all those new people may sound like it could trigger a near-anaphylactic reaction. It might sound overwhelming. No sweat. There’s an easy answer for that too. Only takes three words…
When you feel overstimulated or anxious, just say: “I am excited.” When the adrenaline starts flowing, telling yourself to relax doesn’t work very well. But Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard found that when people reappraised anxiety as excitement, they not only performed better in a stressful situation, but they also felt better.
Feelings of anxiety and excitement in your body are pretty much the same, your brain just needs to interpret them differently. And that can help you be a little less hermit and a little more party animal.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
You’re on your way to being a little more outgoing and happy. But how can we make the world a little more interesting – without changing the world at all?
You never hear anyone say, “You really should be more closed-minded.” We all know that as we age, we become a bit more set in our ways, and research confirms that. As the years go by, the personality trait of “openness to experience” declines.
That’s a shame because there are so many awesome new things in the world. But we can choose to keep questioning, keep exploring and keep learning. We can train ourselves to be more curious and to see old things in new ways. (Ever notice the word “bed” kinda looks like a bed?) It’s all about taking on a more experimental, explorative mindset.
So how do we do it? A great start is exposing yourself to more cultural activities and to keep learning. Going to museums, seeing foreign films, learning another language, or trying new sports and hobbies.
…a recent study that followed thousands of Dutch people for seven years found that greater cultural activity, such as going to the opera, really does precipitate increases in trait openness.
It’s okay to start small. Next time you go to your favorite restaurant, do not order “the usual.” Mix it up. Try something new.
And there’s another way to increase openness that’s pretty surprising: exercise. Studies show physically active people didn’t have the same declines in openness as they aged.
In fact, people with a consistent exercise regimen resisted all negative declines in personality, not just openness. Yes, that’s right: not exercising can actually make your personality worse:
These findings provide evidence that a physically inactive lifestyle is associated with long-term detrimental personality trajectories.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
So you’re a bit more open. But how do we get you more organized? More conscientious? Turns out the secret isn’t in schedules or to-do lists. The real trick is something a lot deeper and more profound…
A lot of people aren’t all that organized. But then they become parents and somehow – magically — they can get more done in a day than they used to in a week. Not too surprising, but there’s a lesson in there for all of us:
We get our act together when we feel like something in our life really matters.
If you want to become more conscientious, find a job or role that is deeply meaningful to you.
Research shows that feeling personally invested in one’s work tends to lead to increases in conscientiousness over time, especially when the demands of the role are transparent. This happens because in a job you love, you’re motivated to behave routinely in organized and ambitious ways in pursuit of the aims of the role.
Okay, maybe that’s not the easiest thing to do overnight. Fair enough. But we can still apply the lesson. In your current job or roles, think about how what you do benefits other people. This increases meaning in life – and can help you get your act together.
Studies that have followed workers over many years have found that regardless of the nature of the work, those who see their work as benefiting others are more likely to say that they find it meaningful and important (these people also tend to be happier and more productive in their jobs). So one way to increase your job’s meaningfulness, and therefore its chances of boosting your conscientiousness, is to think about how it benefits other people…
But how can we be more conscientious every day, outside of roles like work or family? Turns out having more self-control is less about increasing willpower and more about removing temptations that distract you.
The University of Toronto researchers said, “Our results suggest that the path to better self-regulation lies not in increasing self-control, but in removing the temptations available in our environments.”
You don’t need to suddenly become meticulous and disciplined. Often it’s more about putting your smartphone and the TV remote in another room.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Conscientiousness is tied to a longer life and more career success. Impressive stuff. But what if you just want to be a nicer person?
Being less inclined to “suffer fools gladly” can make you tougher, more ambitious and is correlated with a higher salary. So being disagreeable isn’t all bad. But it’s also tied to a greater likelihood of divorce. Not good. Some of us could use a little more balance when it comes to being agreeable.
Increasing agreeableness is fundamentally about improving your empathy skills. Oddly, one of the best ways to do that doesn’t even involve other people.
Think about the different sides of your personality. Sometimes you’re sweet as pie, other times tough as nails. Some people bring out your angel; others your devil. Research shows identifying and understanding different facets of your character boosts empathy. To better understand others, it really helps to better understand yourself.
…the researchers found that the more parts of their selves the participants were able to identify (interestingly, especially negative parts), the greater improvement they showed in their empathy skills over the course of the program. This actually fits neuroscience research, showing overlap in the brain areas we use for thinking about ourselves and thinking about others.
A good next step is to spend more time with other people. Specifically, people very different from yourself. Emotionally connecting with those you don’t have a lot in common with strengthens those empathy muscles all the more.
When psychologists in Italy tested hundreds of high school students twice a year, they found that those who’d spent more high-quality (friendly, cooperative) time with immigrant students through the year also tended to show increases in their agreeableness trait by the end of the study compared with students who didn’t have this experience.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Just one trait left to go. And it’s the one that people want to change the most…
While being more extroverted, open, conscientious, and agreeable is generally regarded as positive, being on the low end of those traits does have upsides. People low in extroversion are more likely to become experts in their field. Those who don’t score high in openness can be more level-headed. People low in conscientiousness can be more fun to hang out with. And when it’s time for brutal honesty and tough negotiating, you want someone disagreeable in your corner.
But neuroticism is different. Lower is almost always better, higher is almost always worse. Being very neurotic rarely confers any superpowers – it just increases suffering.
So how do we reduce it? Gratitude exercises can help. Taking the time to appreciate the good things in life is a powerful balm to negative thoughts and feelings. And with time, a gratitude practice can become a habitual way of thinking that reduces neuroticism overall.
It’s not hard and it doesn’t take a lot of time. Before you go to bed, write down a few things you are thankful for that happened that day.
These results suggest that counting one’s blessings can reduce the negative effects of daily stress, which in turn may have positive long-term effects on mental health.
Gratitude is so magical because you don’t need to accomplish anything, acquire anything, or really do anything. It’s just a shift in perspective. To take the time to appreciate the good that is already here. To stop taking things for granted and to realize just how lucky you are in so many ways.
So how else can we reduce neuroticism? Therapy and meditation can certainly help but let’s focus on something fun and easy that almost everybody loves: travel. Specifically, international travel.
…by the study’s end, students who spent time abroad had experienced greater reductions in their trait neuroticism compared with the students who stayed at home.
Yup, hopping on a plane is a great way to soothe those frayed nerves and become a more chill person overall. And if you’re not that excited about visiting foreign countries, you need to scroll back up and increase your openness to experience, pal.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. New and improved you is on the way. Let’s round it all up, and we’ll also address the question that may be on some people’s minds: how do you do all this and stay authentic to yourself?
Here’s how to improve your personality:
- Extroversion: Schedule more fun activities with friends. Forget what your parents said: talk to strangers. And if you get nervous, just remember: you’re not nervous; you’re excited.
- Openness: Learn Chinese. Learn to cook. Learn to cook Chinese cuisine. And get some exercise. Lack of it is a major cause of a lousy personality.
- Conscientiousness: You don’t need a fancy to-do list. You need more meaningful things in your life. Think about how what you do benefits others. And don’t try to increase willpower; eliminate temptations.
- Agreeableness: Build those empathy muscles. To better understand others, better understand yourself. Think about the different sides of your personality. Then spend time with people very different from you.
- Neuroticism: Turn your daily worry list into a nightly gratitude list. If you can do that for six months, reward yourself with a trip to Thailand.
So if you change your personality, who are you really?
It’s a trick question. Truth is, we all vary day to day. We’re affected by context, moods, events, and other people. In a Walt-Whitman-esque way, we all contain multitudes.
Don’t worry about “being yourself.” Heck, you don’t even really know who that is. Instead, strive to be your best self. That’s more clear, more consistent. You know better who you want to be than who you are.
And this solves the authenticity problem. According to the research, trying to be your ideal self is more authentic than trying to be who you think you are day to day.
Authenticity was consistently associated with acting highly extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and intellectual, regardless of the actor’s traits.
You become authentic by striving to be the best version of you. And make sure to surround yourself with those who bring out that ideal self. Not only will that help you on your journey, but studies show this is also what produces the most satisfying relationships.
…research with couples has found that most important to relationship satisfaction is being with someone who brings out the best in you, helping you to become the person you want to be.
Be the platonic form of you. Be the 3-D IMAX version of you. It’s the path to feeling authentic, and to great relationships.
Don’t just “be yourself.” Be the best you that you can possibly be.
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