6 Science-Based Self-Improvement Tips
We're best served by focusing on the parts of us that are the most changeable.
Posted September 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Self-improvement can involve improving any aspect of the self—for example, personal qualities, skills, and even the roles we play (like husband or wife and son or daughter). When we start thinking about self-improvement, it can be helpful to be strategic about where we put our efforts so we don't waste time on the wrong things. Some aspects of ourselves are relatively changeable and some aspects are pretty fixed. So, we're best served by focusing our efforts on the parts of us that are the most changeable.
Luckily, a leading psychology researcher, Martin Seligman, offered information about the aspects of ourselves we actually can improve (and the aspects we can't), according to the research. According to Seligman (2009), these aspects of ourselves are good candidates for self-improvement as they are quite changeable:
Other researchers have shown that specific aspects of ourselves can be changed or improved (Sedikides & Hepper, 2009). Some of these aspects include:
- Well-being (e.g., self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth).
- Personality factors (e.g., extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness to experience).
- Personal relationships (e.g., marriages).
- Achievement (e.g., success at school or work).
To begin our self-improvement journey, here are some tips to try:
1. Engage in self-reflection.
Self-reflection is an important part of self-awareness. Without self-reflection, we may not have a clear self-concept—that is, how we see ourselves may not match how others see us (Johnson et al., 2002). By engaging in self-reflection, we can better understand the areas of ourselves that we might want to improve.
2. Try mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the act of bringing attention to the experience of each moment. It also involves an attitude of curiosity and acceptance (versus judgment) and seeing thoughts and emotions as transient states (Bishop et al., 2004). Like self-reflection, mindfulness can potentially make us more open to experiences and possibilities that can aid self-improvement.
3. Cultivate a growth mindset.
A growth mindset is a mindset where we believe that we can grow and improve our abilities (Dweck, 2015). If we have the belief that we can improve, we're more likely to put in the effort actually required to learn and grow. That's why building a growth mindset can help us achieve many of our goals and improve ourselves in the ways we desire.
4. Acknowledge feelings of shame.
The truth is that many of us have the motivation to engage in self-improvement due to societal pressures (Sedikides & Hepper, 2009), external expectations, or even shame about not being good enough in some areas. But if we strive to improve ourselves simply to please others, we are likely to end up feeling unsatisfied, even if we succeed in our self-improvement goals. So, it's worth thinking about your reasons for engaging in self-improvement, acknowledging any shame, and rethinking your self-improvement goals to ensure that they are in alignment with your core values.
5. Build reappraisal skills.
Reappraisal is an emotion regulation strategy that can help us reinterpret stressful situations in more positive ways that help us reduce negative emotions and increase positive emotions. To do it, try to think of a current difficult situation in a way that is less bad (e.g., "at least I have a roof over my head"), or more good (e.g., "this is an opportunity to learn and build character"). The more you practice this skill, the easier it will become.
6. Find and use your strengths.
When we aim to improve ourselves, we often focus on our weaknesses—the things we may not do as well as we would like to. But building on our strengths can also be a good idea—it can help us become masterful in our existing abilities.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., ... & Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 11(3), 230-241.
Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.
Johnson, S. C., Baxter, L. C., Wilder, L. S., Pipe, J. G., Heiserman, J. E., & Prigatano, G. P. (2002). Neural correlates of self‐reflection. Brain, 125(8), 1808-1814.
Sedikides, C., & Hepper, E. G. (2009). Self‐improvement. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(6), 899-917.
Seligman, M. E. (2009). What You Can Change... and What You Can't*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Vintage.