A neuroscientist explains how easy changes to your routine can improve your personality
In this extract from Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Christian Jarrett explains the situation-selection strategy.
Where you are, what you’re doing, and who you are with all affect your personality in the moment. Over time, these influences can accumulate, shaping the kind of person you become. But you don’t have to accept this state of affairs passively.
The poet Maya Angelou said, “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.” She was certainly right in the sense that we can be canny about how we choose to spend our time: we can shape our circumstances so that they work for, not against, us.
For instance, if you would like to develop a more open-minded, sociable, warm personality, an important way to achieve this is to strive to place yourself into situations that lift your mood. This may sound obvious, but if you think honestly for a moment, how often are you strategic when planning your time?
Take next weekend –what are your plans? Did you really consider how what you are planning to do will make you feel? It’s quite likely your schedule will be based much more on habit or convenience.
Of course, you may have unavoidable responsibilities. Yet for many of us living in free societies and with even a modest income, it is possible to think more deliberately than usual about what we plan to do, taking into consideration how we are likely to feel, and therefore – over the long term –allowing us to exert more deliberate influence over the kind of people we will become.
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Rather than gritting your teeth as you endure yet another spell of boredom or even a storm of emotional angst, try making a greater effort to plan ahead and seek out the sunlit places that promise more joy.
Psychologists at the University of Sheffield in England tested this approach recently. They gave half of their volunteers the following situation-selection instruction before the weekend and asked them to repeat it three times and to commit to doing it: “If I am deciding what to do this weekend, then I will select activities that will make me feel good and avoid doing things that will make me feel bad!”
On Monday, all the volunteers provided a breakdown of what they’d spent the weekend doing and the emotions they’d experienced. The key finding was that those who followed the instruction experienced more positive emotion over the weekend. This was particularly the case for the volunteers with more neurotic personalities, who said they usually struggled to regulate their emotions. If you would like to be less neurotic, this could be a particularly useful approach for you.
The situation-selection strategy is not all easy sailing, though. An unfortunate and important obstacle to taking this more strategic approach to life and our own personality development is that a lot of the time, we are not very good at anticipating how different situations will make us feel.
Psychologists call this skill “affective forecasting,” and they’ve found that we tend to overestimate the impact of rare, dramatic events on our positive and negative emotions.
We think that winning the lottery will leave us in a permanent state of euphoria, or that failing next week’s exam will leave us devastated, but in reality, we are quick to adapt to these isolated events and return to our usual emotional baseline.
At the same time, we tend to underestimate the cumulative effect of repeated, minor, mundane experiences. I’m referring to simple, everyday things like the route you take to work. Consider how, if you walk through the park, it might take longer to get to work, but it would lift your mood a little every day. Studies suggest that as little as ten minutes of exercise a day can increase our happiness.
Or what about that colleague you always hang out with at lunch? Sure, it’s easy to chat with the person you’ve known for years, but if she is grumpy by nature – or has poor “affective presence” – she is bound to leave you feeling demotivated every day.
And then there’s all the time you spend watching TV in the evening. As a veteran of countless box sets, I certainly know how tempting it is to reach for the remote. But watching the latest drama about drug dealers or serial killers probably won’t do much for your mood or help you find meaning in life, for that matter.
You could even see your decisions around when to go to bed as part of the situation-selection strategy.
Getting enough sleep is one of the surest ways to lift your mood. A recent study of over twenty thousand people found that falling just one hour short of the optimum amount of sleep – seven to nine hours – was associated with a 60 to 80 per cent increased risk of experiencing negative moods like hopelessness and nervousness.
Despite this, many of us time and again put off going to bed at an appropriate time, preferring to stay up bingeing on Game of Thrones or chatting on social media, a modern malaise that psychologists have dubbed bedtime procrastination. Setting yourself some simple ground rules, like no digital devices in the bedroom, can help you get over this bad habit.
Taking a more strategic approach to life will come more easily to some people than others. In particular, those who are very agreeable tend to have shrewd instincts for how they choose to spend their time, frequently placing themselves in pleasant situations, which helps them be more warm, upbeat, and avoid conflict.
Those of us not blessed with this instinct can still learn a lot from it by making a greater effort to choose situations beneficial to our mood and personality development.
A simple rule of thumb may be to try to pursue any activities and company that help you to behave as outgoing and friendly as possible. A fascinating study that involved over one hundred undergraduates recording their behaviour and mood in a nightly diary for two weeks found that they felt happier on days when they had been relatively more sociable, friendlier, and more conscientious.
Critically, this was true regardless of their usual personality profile, including whether introverted or extraverted. This is probably because behaving in these ways helps fulfil our basic human needs to feel connected to others, to feel competent and in control of our lives.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.