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Psychologists label five personality traits and explain which increase and decrease with age. But what's hard-wired and what's amenable to change? Elizabeth Bernstein and Colby College psychology professor Christopher Soto join Lunch Break. Photo: Getty.
A few years ago, Brandon Green was sitting on the couch, brooding over a small mistake he'd made at work and the likely consequences. His roommate walked in and began telling him about something funny that happened to him that day. Mr. Green didn't chuckle or even smile. He scowled and said nothing.
That's when his roommate offered Mr. Green some valuable analysis: "Never mind," he said. "You're just not a happy person."
"Something happened to me in that moment," says Mr. Green, a 29-year-old Web analyst from Los Angeles. "I realized I could continue blaming the world, as I had been, or I could try something different."
Is it possible to significantly alter your personality? Experts say you can—but it isn't easy.
Several large research studies conducted over the past few years show that a person's personality naturally changes over the course of adulthood, in response to life events such as entering a committed relationship or advancing in a career.
From the ages of 20 to 65, people report increases in positive traits, such as conscientiousness, and decreases in negative traits, such as neuroticism. Most people tend to become more agreeable, more responsible, more emotionally stable—in other words, their personalities improve. Psychologists call it the Maturity Principle.
Researchers have also long known that friendly, outgoing, responsible people tend to be happier than shy, irresponsible, unsociable people. But in a new twist with lots of ramifications for therapists, researchers have learned that being happy to begin with may help change your personality.
A study published online in January in the Journal of Personality analyzed personality and well-being data from more than 16,000 Australians who were surveyed repeatedly between 2005 and 2009. The researchers found people who were happy in 2005 tended to become more emotionally stable, more conscientious, more agreeable and—perhaps most intriguingly—more introverted over the next four years.
When researchers talk about "personality," they mean a "characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that is consistent over time and across situations," says Christopher Soto, a research psychologist and director of the Colby Personality Lab at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who was the researcher on the happiness study. Personality is about 50% innate and 50% learned, he says.
According to the Big Five personality model, developed by several sets of researchers starting in the 1940s, the human personality can be divided into five broad categories or domains—openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and extroversion (also spelled extraversion).
Within each category are specific traits and behaviors. Extroversion, for example, encompasses traits such as gregariousness and warmth. Neuroticism includes anger, anxiety and vulnerability.
Some personality types are more successful than others, experts say. People who are more conscientious tend to do better in the workplace and school, Dr. Soto says. People who score high on agreeableness and low on neuroticism tend to have more satisfying and stable relationships. Extroverts do better in social and entrepreneurial occupations.
Good news/bad news: Even small changes in a person's personality can produce important effects on relationships, career, health and happiness, Dr. Soto says. But because personality characteristics are, by definition, relatively stable, change takes time.
"You start by changing the behavior and then, if you can maintain that new behavior over time, it gets encoded," Dr. Soto says. Work with a therapist and you could see lasting changes in a matter of months, he says. You can learn to manage your personality traits on your own, too. It just takes longer.
Where do you start? "First, we have to recognize which pieces of our personality affect us," says Richard Levak, a Del Mar, Calif., psychologist. "If I am a grouchy, argumentative, slightly suspicious type, and I am always getting fired because I get into arguments with co-workers and always blame others, then I have to realize that I have to change something."
Think about a bad habit like overeating, Dr. Levak says. To lose weight, you become aware of when and why you overeat. "If you have a tendency to be defensive and want to fight, you tell yourself, 'OK, when my boss comes to talk to me and I immediately feel I am being judged and want to protect myself, I am overreacting,' " Dr. Levak says. "Calm yourself down and don't argue."
Don't set expectations too high. Be patient. It takes a long time for an intentional behavior to become second nature, Dr. Soto says. Don't worry too much about other people's reactions because usually you are changing in a way that pleases them.
Warren Kennaugh, a behavioral strategist in Sydney, Australia, who helps individuals and teams develop successful behaviors, says it's important to start small. Identify a first step and then practice it, without worrying about the initial results. "It's like learning to kick a football," he says. "You focus on the steps, not whether it goes in the goal."
He says you should let the people close to you know what you're doing. "Not only can they be supportive," he says, "but a change for you can also mean a change for them—one they may not want or be ready for, if they aren't told prior."
Brandon Green says he had to agree with his roommate's assessment of his personality. For as long as he could remember, he says, he had felt negative, frustrated and "drawn inward." Often he struggled with feelings of jealousy and anger, and he avoided romantic relationships to protect himself from these feelings. An introvert, he wasn't comfortable in social situations.
He started with therapy. He went to cognitive behavioral therapy twice a week, then once a week, for about 18 months. He read self-help books and wrote in a journal—sometimes up to 1 1/2 hours a night—recording and analyzing his perceptions. He took up photography, which got him out and talking to people. And he blogged about his efforts with the goal of helping others.
Most helpful, Mr. Green says, was learning to question his negative view of the world. He learned to do this in the moment—when someone cut him off in traffic, for example—and at calm moments when he could reflect on things that caused him stress. "If you are more negative, you have a feeling that bad stuff can happen at every turn," he says. "You have to question if that is just coming from you because you are living through a sour lens."
Mr. Green sees a big change in himself. He is still introverted, he says, but more comfortable interacting with others, sharing information about himself and making friends.
"Being introspective and attempting to be honest with myself and others has helped me greatly in becoming a happier, more outgoing person," he says.
—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter at EBernsteinWSJ.
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version referring to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, misidentified the college as Colby University.