By Kat McGowan, published on March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Call it the cult of the ugly duckling. We devour stories of personal transformation: the uptight guy who learns to cut loose, the wallflower who becomes the life of the party. It's the staple of self-help books and romantic comedies—as well as the primary reason that people drag themselves to high-school reunions. ("Can you believe that guy who never talked is now a real estate mogul?") But psychologists have long believed that major personality makeovers are impossible. In fact, the big themes of personality—whether you are shy or outgoing, relaxed or a worrywart—seem to be scripted at a very young age.
However, personality researchers have begun looking more closely at the smaller ways we can and do change. Positive psychologists, who investigate human talents, have identified 24 character strengths—familiar qualities we admire, such as integrity, loyalty, kindness, vitality—and are limning them to find out why these faculties come so naturally to some people. What they're discovering is that many of these qualities amount to habitual ways of responding to the world—habits that can be learned.
"The evidence is good that most of these things can be changed," says Christopher Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "That doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't come in a flash." Psychologists talk about personality change the way doctors talk about the biological set point for weight: Nature designed some of us to be heavy, and others to be slim. It's not impossible to alter your weight, but it requires going against your own grain.
But eventually, the new way of being can come to feel like second nature. Peterson cites himself as an example. Inherently introverted, he realized early on in his career as an academic that his reticence would prove disastrous in the lecture hall. So he learned to be more outgoing, to crack jokes, and to entertain big classes full of psychology students. "Do I still have an introverted temperament? Yes, in that if I'm in a big crowd, I get anxious," he says. "But my behavior is consistently extroverted, because I've worked to make it that way. Now, it's very spontaneous."
Whether Peterson's personality has truly changed is almost beside the point. He may not be an extrovert, technically speaking, but he behaves like one, and is treated like one. Tweaking the way you interpret and react to the world can be a transformative experience, freeing you up to act in new ways. At first, it feels awkward, even bizarre. But with new behaviors come new experiences, creating a feedback loop that, over time, reinforces the transition.
Some sought-after qualities are easier to develop than others. Courage, joy, passion, and optimism are among the more amenable to cultivation, but each requires mastering a different—and sometimes surprising—set of skills. To bring more joy and passion into your life, you must paradoxically be more open to experiencing sadness, anxiety, and fear. Learning to think like an optimist, it turns out, is less important than acting like one. And being courageous has nothing to do with how afraid you are; it's a matter of how strongly you feel about your goals. Cultivating these characteristics puts you on the road to that blend of happiness, satisfaction, and purpose that is the height of human functioning, what positive psychologists call "the good life."
OPTIMISM: Make the Road by Walking
When David Fajgenbaum was 18 years old, he had a horrible shock. Just as he was gearing up for his new life at Georgetown University, his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Instead of jumping into the freshman whirlwind of libraries, parties, and football games, he spent every weekend at home with his family. "I had three feelings: I felt alone, I felt helpless, and I felt guilty for being at school," he says now.
Before his mother's death, an idea struck him: to honor her, he'd reach out to others who were going through the same thing. Back on campus, he quickly found that beyond ordinary counseling, the university had no services for grieving students. So Fajgenbaum launched a support group, Students of Ailing Mothers and Fathers.
The project snowballed. Both affected students and their friends wanted to do something useful to combat their terrible feelings of helplessness, and so the group organized fundraisers for research money, and began helping younger kids in high schools. The organization now has more than 20 chapters and even earned a "Brick" award, a national prize for youth service.
Even after his mother died, Fajgenbaum did not withdraw. Instead, he spent three to four hours every day building his group. "I invested everything I had in it," Fajgenbaum says. "And it's the most rewarding thing, to honor somebody and at the same time be able to have an impact." He took action despite his own pain—a mainstay of the optimistic mind-set.
Optimists seem to be sprinkled with fairy dust. They suffer less and recover quicker. They're healthier and better-liked and have stronger marriages and more fun. It's enough to make the rest of us gloomy—except that psychologists believe that a lot of these qualities stem from cognitive habits that can be learned. More than any other major personality trait, optimism is a matter of practice.
The key to increasing optimism lies in understanding its true nature. It's not relentless cheer or "positive thinking." It has more to do with how you behave, says Suzanne Segerstrom, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "I think an optimistic outlook can be cultivated, but it's even better to cultivate optimistic behavior—engagement and persistence toward one's goals," she says.
Anticipating a better future, an optimist takes the steps necessary to create it. If Fajgenbaum were more pessimistic, he'd probably have given up when he found out that Georgetown didn't have the support networks he sought, figuring that it was impossible for him, a bereaved freshman, to do anything about it. Instead, he resolved to build them himself.
Pessimists are skeptical that their own actions can lead to good results and tend to overlook positive outcomes when they do occur. To overcome this stumbling block, Segerstrom recommends in her book, Breaking Murphy's Law: How Optimists Get What They Want from Life—and Pessimists Can Too, that you train yourself to pay attention to good fortune. Keep a log in which you write down three positive things that come about each day. This will help you convince yourself that favorable outcomes actually happen all the time, making it easier to begin taking action.
Keep a journal, too, but don't write down your darkest thoughts and fears. Instead, envision a future that you desire and describe how it could evolve out of your present circumstances. By clarifying exactly what you'll need to do to get what you want, you can create your own map to a more hopeful state of mind.
Then, with the pump primed, it'll be easier to make small moves that lead to gratifying results, building further enthusiasm that will protect you from setbacks. Fajgenbaum was a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship, but didn't get the award. Never mind. His plan is to finish his master's degree in public health at Oxford—thanks to a different award—and after that, go on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania to study oncology. He thinks he has a shot at curing cancer. The rest of us might call that Pollyannaish, but he's just calling it his life's work.
PASSION: Taking the Plunge
You know it when you see it. Someone who is fully engaged, deeply involved, totally dedicated—a person brimming with passion. But you've probably never seen it take the form of a 525-foot dive straight down into the depths of the ocean. Tanya Streeter is the Tiger Woods of freediving—the sport of plunging deep into the water without tanks or other breathing equipment. She set nine world records, often besting both men and women. An average person can hold her breath for one minute. Streeter can do it for six.
The physical stamina required for this sport is intense. But the psychological demands were even more overwhelming—and for Streeter, that was the allure. Sure, she was terrified some of the time. Who wouldn't be? But she learned to untangle her fears from her judgment of what her body and mind could do. "In my career as a competitive freediver, there was a limit to what I could do—but it wasn't anywhere near where I thought it was," she says. "When I did my first deep dive, it was 100 feet. I thought I'd never go any farther."
Streeter smashed every record she worked against, and saw no point in rehashing old glories. So, she switched to another extreme sport: television hosting. She'd always been passionate about the ocean. Now, she had the opportunity to promote conservation and environmentalism using her celebrity and her amazing swimming skills to introduce viewers to the wonders of the sea.
Streeter was not a natural in front of the camera. The first day of filming her first ocean documentary, she was painfully self-conscious. "I was horrible," she says. "I sucked." When it was over, she strapped on her fins and took off for a reef for a good cry. But as she's become better at hosting, she's enjoyed it more and more. "It's just so difficult to be relaxed and calm and who you are on camera," she says. "That's the endless—and the most satisfying—challenge."
It's tempting to brand Streeter as a fundamental go-getter, born with fire in her belly. But finding a pursuit that pushes your buttons can infuse anyone with sudden zeal for life. The secret about consuming passions, though, is that while they appear effortless, they require discipline and ability. If they were easy, they wouldn't be so rewarding. Such passions—anything from becoming an opera aficionado to a black belt in karate—tend to be "very open-ended in the amount of skill or knowledge required," says psychologist Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The Holy Grail comes in moments of "flow," when you are so absorbed in what you're doing that you lose yourself. This, in turn, generates feelings of mastery, well-being, and enduring satisfaction.
Many people have at least one such passion. Streeter already has two. But for those who are seeking this sense of fulfillment, there are a few tricks, suggests Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University. The first step is to commit to learning a bit about a subject. Passions don't arrive like bolts out of the blue. They build slowly, through the process of gradual mastery. "Passion and interest, the research is clear, come out of practice and expertise," says Peterson.
As a greenhorn, you also have to put up with feeling like an idiot—to tolerate and laugh at your own ignorance. "You must be willing to accept the discomfort and negative feelings that come your way," says Kashdan.
In fact, those butterflies in your stomach will probably be the first sign that you've hit upon a potential pursuit, says Streeter. "The thing that scares you the most tends to be the most fulfilling," she says. "It doesn't have to be something great. It has to be something that you aren't sure you can do."
JOY: The Art of Loving Life
Mauro Zappaterra was in the fast lane of the fast track, among the elite of young physician-scientists. After grueling training at Harvard Medical School, he plunged into the research he'd been longing to do, the project that would earn him his Ph.D.
The problem: He was miserable. "I've always been really excited about life," he says. "And then I got to the lab, and it wasn't working." His research didn't mesh with his curiosity about healing, which was what had brought him into medicine. And he was preoccupied with the future. His girlfriend urged him to take some time off, but "vacations" and "breaks" are foreign concepts to M.D./Ph.D. students. Finally, he did—and it was a transforming experience. During eight months in Santa Fe, Zappaterra soaked up everything he could about healing techniques not taught at Harvard: polarity therapy, meridians, trauma resolution. "I was interested in how compassion, healing, and medicine could be intertwined," he says.
When he got back from Santa Fe, Zappaterra switched labs to study how cerebrospinal fluid nourishes and protects the developing nervous system. This cutting-edge research project also connects to his training in craniosacral therapy, an alternative medical practice in which the cranial bones, spine, and connective tissue are subtly contacted to bring harmony to the nervous system and thereby treat pain, stress, and injuries.
He also vowed to live more fully in the present moment, and to look for the joy in everything, including failure, disappointment, and sickness. He used meditation, focusing methods, and techniques learned from craniosacral therapy to reach his goals. That's when Zappaterra stumbled upon one of the counter-intuitive realities of personality change: The kind of joy he found was often quiet and reflective rather than loud and exuberant. The way Zappaterra describes it today is as if he feels all of his feelings more deeply, and takes pleasure even from sadness. "I can be joyous, even when I'm not in a joyful mood," he says. In the lab, failure is a constant. For every experiment that goes well, 99 don't work at all. But Zappaterra now believes that these frustrations and setbacks help him learn—about both his research and himself.
Essentially, what he trained himself to do is what Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant calls "savoring": the art of managing positive feelings. Whereas coping well means dealing successfully with problems and setbacks, savoring—glorying in what goes right—is an equally crucial emotional competence. "If all you're doing is trying to get by, trying to avoid the bad, you're missing half of life," says Bryant, author of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. Although people tend to think that taking pleasure in good things comes naturally, it's really a skill. "Bad things will come and find you, knock down your door, and make you deal with them," he adds. "The positive stuff ain't like that. You have to open the door, go hunt for it, and find it."
To heighten joy in life, Bryant suggests that when something good happens, you make time to pay attention to it. Share the experience: The happiest people celebrate triumphs with others. Take a "mental photograph" in which you describe the positive event and its circumstances to yourself in great detail.
Joy can also be held back by rigidity. Kashdan recommends scrutinizing the prohibitions and barriers that structure your life. "The way to living a more zestful life is to be guided and flexible rather than governed," says Kashdan. Zappaterra's turnaround came when he realized that he needed to take time off, even though it violated the creed of M.D./Ph.D. students.
Try paying more attention to your mind-set, Kashdan adds. Are you concentrating on avoiding failure or looking forward to an opportunity to do something well? "The protection mode—focusing on being safe—might get in the way of your reaching your goals." For example, are you hoping to get through a business lunch without embarrassing yourself, or are you thinking about how riveting the conversation might be? That slight difference in mentality "changes how you think, how you feel, what parts of the brain light up," says Kashdan. It subtly inflects your interactions with the world, and is one simple way to have more fun with what you already do.
As with other changes, learning to be more joyous does not come quickly. When Zappaterra got back from Santa Fe, he planted a dozen seeds from a split-leaf philodendron, a slow-growing houseplant that eventually produces huge, glossy leaves. Zappaterra tended the seedlings as a daily reminder of how long it takes to make a real change in a human life. Nearly three years after Santa Fe, he learned to get better at seeing the good in things. And he's been enjoying his big, beautiful plants.
COURAGE: Doing the Right Thing
Usually, we think of courage as physical bravery—the backbone it takes to face enemy fire or stand up to a dictator. But ordinary life demands its own style of bravery, more humble and harder to spot. Day-to-day courage might involve confronting a bullying boss. It could mean stepping up to take responsibility for a mistake. For industrial engineer Kenneth Pedeleose, it meant speaking out against something he thought was wrong.
Pedeleose, an analyst at the Defense Contract Management Agency, which monitors federal military contracts, was stationed at a plant in Marietta, Georgia, where military cargo planes were being built. His job was to oversee the contracts, and he didn't like what he saw: high prices for spare parts ($714 for rivets and $5,217 for brackets) on one project and serious safety violations on another. He and other engineers went "public," sending a report to the Congress members making decisions about military operations.
The Department of Defense launched a major investigation of the project, and an inspector general's report later substantiated many of Pedeleose's allegations. The agency found it would be too dangerous to use these planes for their main purpose: dropping equipment and troops into hostile areas. The contract was restructured to include more oversight and accountability—and lower prices.
Was Pedeleose honored for his vigilance? Not exactly. He was labelled a whistleblower, suspended twice in the past four years, and had to fight to get his back pay reinstated (he won). The experience was stressful and draining, he says. Pedeleose estimates he has spent 2,000 hours over the years uncovering fraud and abuse, and defending himself against retaliation. Nonetheless, he is now working on his fifth report, which he also plans to send to Congress.
"What I saw sickened me," he says now. "If I could have stopped an airplane from crashing, and I just sat back and didn't do anything about it, I couldn't have looked at myself in the mirror." Pedeleose was in the position to make a difference, and had the knowledge and the authority to call attention to the wrongs he had witnessed. Another key: he prepared his case meticulously, marshalling all the facts and documenting every allegation. "Bravery would play into it, but I calculated it so I had a high chance of success," he says. "It means more when you can prove what you're saying."
Pedeleose's story illuminates a widely misunderstood truth about courage: it is motivated not by fearlessness, but by a strong sense of duty. People who behave bravely often say they were afraid at the time, finds Cynthia Pury, a psychologist at Clemson University. But, their principles forced them to take action. Her survey research revealed that whether a student acted courageously had more to do with how strongly he or she felt about the situation than with how frightening it was.
Pury believes that people can learn to become more courageous. Many of her students described doing the same things before they took action. Faced with a risky situation, they first tried to calm themselves down. They prepared for the situation, looking for a way to mitigate the danger, just as Pedeleose did by documenting his allegations. And they focused on what they were trying to accomplish, and how important it was. "I don't think any intervention about courage is going to go that far unless you help people decide what's important," she says.
"Being courageous is really a large number of moments in which, in the face of feeling uncomfortable, you still went forward," says Kashdan. Set up small behavioral experiments for yourself, he suggests. Try a few episodes of sticking your neck out. "We spend so much time experimenting with foods, with different ways to organize our houses, and so little time experimenting with all the ways we can act as a person." Flexibility is the hallmark of psychological health, and it can be energizing and even thrilling to step out of your habits.
Over the long term, picking up a new character trait may help you inch toward being the person you want to be. And in the short term, the effort itself could be surprisingly rewarding, a kind of internal adventure—a way to see the world from a different angle—without ever leaving home.