"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

You can change for the better… mostly

By on March 31, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
June Darling

By June Darling

April is a great time for a fresh start. 

In fact, there’s a science of fresh starts that suggests we are more able to motivate ourselves to change when there are certain external changes, like it’s a new year, or we’ve moved to a new place. 

Around the world, Spring has long been thought of as a time of re-birth and new beginnings. Many people feel their blood stirring to make a change. 

Let’s lay some groundwork for change before you jump in on a fresh start.

First, is change possible? This question has been long debated by psychologists. 

Americans, in general, have a long history of believing that change IS possible. Overall, that positive attitude turns out to be a good thing. 

Researchers have found those who believe they can change, do change much more than those who don’t. Duh. The idea, though, is our beliefs about the possibility of change will influence our ability to change. 

Research, as of late, is supporting the idea we can change in many ways. 

Most behavioral scientists previously believed our personalities, beliefs and behaviors were set in plaster by three. Later the age was moved to 30. 

Now, that thinking has been firmly challenged as well. Currently, the change research solidly tilts more toward plasticity than plaster.

New research on thousands of people shows people not only can change, but that they do change over time. We don’t know exactly why. It could be something naturally built into the aging process or perhaps it has to do with taking on social roles that require us to change. 

For example, as we age, we generally become more emotionally stable. My father was a basket case emotionally in his 20s, 30s and 40s. He had, what was then called, a “nervous breakdown” during those early years. At 50, a clear change became apparent. When he died, at 80, he was a model of calm repose. 

My dad’s change was probably not solely a function of aging. He worked on himself — not getting upset over little things; counting to 10 or taking a walk when angry; reading and watching things that uplifted or inspired him and kept him grounded. But perhaps something about aging made it easier. 

Some think the positive changes that occur with aging may have to do with social role expectations that require us to be more conscientious and emotionally stable. We take on positions like teachers, ministers, parents in which we are expected to be wise, conscientious and emotionally together. 

Change, in many ways, IS possible. 

However, some researchers urge not to waste any time trying to change those things about ourselves that are super hard to change unless we are highly motivated. 

Instead we should work on things easier to change. Believe it or not, some of the things researchers tell us are not so hard to change are things like mood and sexual dysfunctions. Things researchers say are much harder to change are sexual identity (perhaps impossible to change) and sexual orientation. 

What makes sense for most of us to change are things like being more emotionally stable, more conscientious, more grateful, more compassionate, more resilient, more curious, more optimistic. 

Many people, particularly in the U.S. where extraversion (commonly spelled extroversion) is highly valued, however, want to be more extraverted. 

Different than in the past, researchers are now saying it is possible to become more extraverted, but it’s super hard. It might be easier, and ultimately more rewarding, to find a place to work and live where introversion is more respected.

Once you’ve realistically separated out what will be easier and harder to change, check your core beliefs about change. 

Do you strongly believe you can re-wire your brain to be more intelligent? More optimistic? More conscientious? More agreeable? More loving? 

If not, you may need to pump yourself with a shot of plasticity-thinking by reading articles by people such as Dr. Carol Dweck who pioneered the idea of growth mindset before you start trying to change yourself.

Let’s assume you’ve figured out the thing you want to change is not super hard. Additionally, you do believe, in your gut, the change you want to make is possible. You will still need to keep the faith. What I mean is you must figure out a way to keep your hope alive.

People like Dr. Angela Duckworth, winner of the MacArthur genius award and author of the bestseller Grit, suggests you don’t set goals that are unreasonably high. Set bite-sized goals. 

For example, don’t go for changing yourself from an introvert to an extravert. Instead set a bite-sized goal of smiling, making eye-contact, or saying hello to one stranger a day. (It will make you happier, even if you don’t become a big extravert.)

This April, you may feel the invigorating spring air and be moved to consider the possibilities of new life. Use the science of fresh starts, the research on aging, an understanding of what you can easily and not so easily change, growth mindset, and bite-sized goals for a successful fresh start.

How might you understand the nuances of change to make a fresh start this April and move up to The Good Life?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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