They call it a comfort zone for a reason. There is definitely comfort in having a life that is predictable and without unpleasant surprises. There is also comfort in having steady routines that you follow day in and day out, and from year to year as you go through the ebbs and flows of the seasons.
People who know you won’t call you at 7 p.m., because they know, with certainty, that you’ve just sat down to eat dinner. They also know what to get you for a birthday gift, because your preferences for clothes, wine, or even store gift cards are so well-established. As it turns out, though, treading the “straight and narrow” pathway may not be all that beneficial to your well-being. Even if you never actually change those reassuring routines, just contemplating a break in your patterns can be of value.
People may gravitate toward steady routines for a number of reasons, but one of the most probable has to do with personality. The Five-Factor Model proposes that the quality of “openness to experience” is one of the basic building blocks of personality, influencing whether you’re willing to contemplate new ideas, explore new opportunities, try out new cultural experiences, question your values from time to time, and take the time to explore your feelings. Although openness to experience is somewhat the poor step-child of the Five-Factor Model, paling in comparison to popular favorites, such as introversion/extraversion and neuroticism, there is now increasing evidence of its importance in overall psychological health.
In one recent study by the National University of Ireland’s Anna Soye and Páraic O'Súilleabháin (2019), a sample of 77 women ages 18-25 were subjected to two different stress-producing conditions while their blood pressure and heart rate were monitored. In the active stress condition, participants had the unusual task of speaking as loud as possible into a camcorder about words presented to them on a screen. In the passive stress condition, they were required to watch the recorded videos as they performed this task.
Previous research has actually revealed that both of these conditions produce cardiovascular stress responses. The findings showed that women highest in openness to feelings were most likely to show elevated stress reactions, but only in the acute stress condition. Across the passive stress condition, these highly open individuals actually recovered more successfully. In other words, in some circumstances, being willing to explore your feelings might help you become better able to adapt to stressful situations.
Openness to experience as a personality trait may also matter for how young you feel. Yannick Stephan of the University of Montpellier (France) and colleagues (2019) examined data from a large U.S. sample initially including over 10,000 adults and followed them for 8 to 20 years. Participants completed measures of Five-Factor personality traits, along with self-report measures of physical activity and subjective age (calculated by subtracting self-rated age from actual age and dividing by actual age).
The final statistical model in the Stephan et al. study revealed the beneficial effects of physical activity on subjective age, via a route through openness to experience. In other words, as the authors concluded: “A physically active lifestyle contributes to feeling younger, in part because of the personality and health benefits of such a lifestyle” (p. 7).
Other research shows that being open to experience may also boost your creativity. In the “Big Two” model of personality, the five factors break down into plasticity (openness and extraversion) and stability (low neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) (Feist, 2019). Supporting this concept, Angelina Sutin et al. (2019) showed positive relationships between openness and verbal fluency, another indicator of cognitive functioning related to creativity. People high in openness may even have more gray matter in the brain (cortical thickness), as observed by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Oshin Vartanian and colleagues (2019).
This research leads right into the Openness-Fluid-Crystallized-Intelligence (OFCI) model (Ziegler et al., 2018). The OFCI model proposes that people higher in personality openness also have more varied interests and improved ability to assess situations, strengths that are reflected in higher scores on measures of intelligence as they develop through adulthood. More openness, this model proposes, leads to more “learning opportunities,” which in turn stimulates the cognitive processes that underlie intelligence.
With these findings in mind, then, here are the five reasons you need to open your own personality as well as your routines to stretch your own comfort zone, bit by bit:
1. Improve your adaptability. Giving yourself that extra emotional push from being willing to look at your feelings in a range of situations can wake your cardiovascular system enough to learn to adapt to real stress.
2. Feel younger. When you are open to new experiences, you freshen your perspective. It’s especially useful if you adopt this perspective in re-examining whether you can squeeze in more time for exercise, rather than sticking to your tried-and-true excuse that you're too busy (hint: most people aren't).
3. Expand your verbal horizons. Research showing the relationship between verbal fluency and personality openness highlights the value of adopting a mentally flexible approach to life.
4. Become more creative. Feeling “stuck” is one of the chief reasons why people feel their creativity is stifled. By being willing to consider new ideas and approaches, you can think yourself out of that constraining mental box.
5. Strengthen your intelligence. As the OFCI model proposes, people higher in personality openness get more out of their experiences, allowing them to expand their intelligence more than their comfort zone-loving age peers.
You may be wondering how to go about making these transformations, now that you know why it’s worth doing so. The answer is to look at personality openness as a learnable skill. Train yourself to look in new ways at your world, your feelings, and even your most cherished daily schedules by taking off your straight and narrow blinders.
To sum up, fulfillment in life can come from the sources of comfort you’ve grown to love, but as the research on personality openness shows, some stretching of that comfort zone can enrich your life even more.
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Feist, G. J. (2019). Creativity and the Big Two model of personality: Plasticity and stability. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 27, 31–35. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.07.005
Stephan, Y., Sutin, A. R., & Terracciano, A. (2019). Physical activity and subjective age across adulthood in four samples. European Journal of Ageing. doi:10.1007/s10433-019-00537-7
Soye, A., & O’Súilleabháin, P. S. (2019). Facets of openness to experience are associated with cardiovascular reactivity and adaptation across both active and passive stress exposures. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 140, 26–32. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.03.016
Sutin, A. R., Stephan, Y., Damian, R. I., Luchetti, M., Strickhouser, J. E., & Terracciano, A. (2019). Five-factor model personality traits and verbal fluency in 10 cohorts. Psychology and Aging, 34(3), 362-373. doi: 10.1037/pag0000351
Vartanian, O., Wertz, C. J., Flores, R. A., Beatty, E. L., Smith, I., Blackler, K., . . . Jung, R. E. (2018). Structural correlates of Openness and Intellect: Implications for the contribution of personality to creativity. Human Brain Mapping, 39(7), 2987-2996. doi: 10.1002/hbm.24054
Ziegler, M., Schroeter, T. A., Ludtke, O., & Roemer, L. (2018). The enriching interplay between openness and interest: A theoretical elaboration of the OFCI model and a first empirical test. Journal of Intelligence(3). doi: 10.3390/jintelligence6030035